Using Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children
I Come from Arizona - a currently running Children’s Theatre Company production that is creating bridges for discussion.
When I was a child, I grew up on the East side of St. Paul. I lived in an old neighborhood that was home to people of diverse races, economic classes, sexual orientations, and religions. My own father was a refugee from Cambodia, and in 1995, he married a white woman and bought a house in that old neighborhood a year later. Our next-door neighbors were a large Mexican family, and when I was 9, the father was deported and my best friend at the time had to move away. I remember wondering if my father would ever be deported. I was told that it would never happen because he had become an official citizen. As a young child, this was a huge comfort.
That comfort of knowing that your parents are legally allowed in the United States is not something every child shares. I Come from Arizona is a play that seeks to have that conversation with younger audiences and their families/communities. It centers on the experience of a young girl named Gabi who learns that her family is undocumented from Mexico and her interactions with contrasting perspectives on immigration. It was premiered at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis October 9 and runs through November 25. Guest speakers from The Advocates for Human Rights have held post-play discussions to help audiences sift through the often challenging issues raised. After the show, children from the audience have been invited to send their questions to Off-Book where CTC cast and crew and The Advocates can respond.
Here are some the questions and their answers:
Question: Why is the immigration debate always centered around Mexico and South America?
Madeline Lohman, Senior Researcher: “The immigration debate is centered around Mexico and Latin America for a few reasons. One is historical. Because of our land border with Mexico, it is true that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the past were from Mexico. This led opponents of undocumented immigration to equate it with Mexican immigration or even Mexican identity, when the vast majority of people of Mexican ancestry living in the United States are citizens or legal residents. Today, Mexicans may no longer be the majority of undocumented immigrants according to estimates from the Pew Research Center, which has some of the most reliable numbers on the topic. So, the focus on unauthorized immigration from Mexico is no longer accurate, but it still persists.
A second reason is racial prejudice. Immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are typically people of color and they share a common, non-English language. White, English-speaking citizens can see that they are different in a way that is more difficult with immigrants from Canada or most of Europe. Those white citizens may also have a family heritage from European countries that leads them to feel an affinity for immigrants from Europe that they do not feel for immigrants from Latin America. We can see the influence of racial prejudice in debates about refugee resettlement and granting asylum. When (white) Bosnians were fleeing during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, there was far less push back than during today’s refugee crises in Syria, Central America, and Somalia.”
Question: Is it true that people have to walk through the desert to cross the border?
Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Yes, it’s true. People often walk for many days through the desert to come to the United States.
People come to the United States for many reasons and in many different ways. Many people take airplanes, boats, or drive cars to visit or move to the United States. People who come to the United States need permission, called a “visa,” and need to be inspected and admitted by an officer at the border or airport. The government estimates that 76.9 million people came to the U.S. in 2017, mostly as visitors.
But the United States does not let everyone who wants or needs to come here into the country. People who want to visit, for example, have to prove they have enough money to travel and that they are going to return home when their trip is over in order to get a visa.
Sometimes people risk a dangerous journey to the United States so they can try to enter the country and get work to send money to their families. The United States only allows people to “immigrate” (move here permanently) if a close family member or employer in the United States files a “petition” with the government to let the person come here. But many people who want to come to the United States to build a better future for themselves and their families do not have someone to petition for them. For most, there is no way to legally immigrate. (The United States only allows people who can prove they will invest $1.0 million in a business to immigrate without a petition).
Some people have to leave their homes because they are not safe and come to the United States to seek asylum. People have to be in the United States or at a port-of-entry at the border or airport to ask for asylum?—?there’s no other process to follow. Asylum seekers from Central America and other countries sometimes make their way to the border on foot. More than 90,000 adults with children were apprehended by U.S. officials near the southern border in 2018.
Here is a good resource for learning more: Enrique’s Journey, a book by Sonia Nazario.”
Question: Why did Gabi’s mom have to lie to her [about their undocumented status]?
Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Gabi’s mom was afraid that she would be deported if anyone found out she was in the United States without permission, which we sometimes call being “undocumented.”
People who don’t have permission from the U.S. government to be in the United States can be sent back to their home countries. This is called “deportation.” Citizens cannot be deported from the United States. Today, everyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen. People born outside the United States can become U.S. citizens through a legal process called “naturalization” where they take an oath of citizenship. U.S. citizens have permission to be here and cannot be deported.
But not everyone in the United States is a citizen. (The law calls anyone who is not a U.S. citizen an “alien”). Many people in the United States have permission to be in the country but are not citizens?—?they are permanent residents (we sometimes say they have a “green card”), visitors, students, or many other categories. People have to follow special rules and if they break the rules they can be deported. (For example, a person coming to visit the United States is not allowed to work here. If they work, they break the rules and can be deported).
Some people come into the United States without any permission or they stay in the United States after they were supposed to leave. They can be deported if the government finds out they are here without permission.
Here is a good resource for learning more: Documented, a film by Jose Antonio Vargas.”
Question: Do stories like this really happen?
Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “These stories really happen, and they may be happening to you or kids you know. This can be scary.
The government estimates there are about 11 million people in the United States who do not have permission to be here. About 6 million people under age 18 live with at least 1 undocumented family member.”
Question: Do ICE agents really take people away?
Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “ICE agents arrest, detain, and deport people from the United States every day.
Since 2008, more than 2 million people have been arrested by ICE and more than 1.2 million people have been ordered deported by immigration judges. ICE reports that 226,119 people were removed from the United States in 2017.
Here is a good resource to learn your rights and make a plan: IMMI: free and simple information for immigrants.”
If you would like to stay up to date with the questions and answers, Off-Book will continue to post updates here.
Or, if you would like to join the conversation and attend I Come From Arizona, resources and tickets can be found here.
By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights