There is nothing more powerful than learning first hand about the personal experiences of immigrants who are affected by the i-word, or of non-immigrants bearing witness to the impact the racial slur has on our communities. So today we launch our "I Am" storytelling project, in which people from all walks of life relate experiences, demand respect and reject criminalizing language as a way for media and others to describe their neighbors, children, families and themselves. Dara Craven, the first to share her story, inspires us to all be determined to get rid of the i-word and the dehumanization and hate it generates.
Stories in the "I Am" project will be gathered in collaboration with our campaign partners. We are grateful to the Alliance for a Just Society for connecting us with Dara's story.
We each have a powerful and personal story to share. Today, I am determined to help people become aware of a word that makes our stories and humanity invisible. People should not be called "illegals" because that word does not allow others to recognize our stories of struggle in coming to this country and making a life here.
This is my story. Due to the secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, my family had to escape across the Mekong River to Thailand. We were in the refugee camps for nearly three years when we were granted documents to come to the U.S. I was 8 and a half years old when we arrived in Seattle on Sept. 1, 1979. I now live in Seattle with my two children. I am from Laos, but I am an American because I have lived here for most of my life. Yet, the government doesn't see me as an American.
I was considered a permanent resident for most of my life, up until a while ago when I lost my status because I missed an immigration hearing. An ICE agent took me away to the detention center in Tacoma, Wash., in October of 2009. When they took me there, I asked them not to have a man pat me down. I have been sexually abused and I didn't want a man to go through my body. But they didn't pay attention, they had a man pat me down, they booked me and I was shackled. I was treated like a high-risk maximum-security criminal. They ignored a lot of my rights as a human being. They verbally abused me inside the facility. An officer took away my food and threw it out and I refused to eat the food out of the trash. It was all part of their intimidation tactics.
I work as an administrative assistant at a semi-private school. We serve low-income families who have experienced domestic violence. My story, like many other important stories, is erased by the criminalizing language of immigration politics. And when that happens, immigrants like me are abused by our husbands, employers and even the state, and no one does anything about it. I know America can do better--and one commitment we all can make is to not dehumanize people through our language.