What We Have, What We Can

by Roopika Risam

At Salem State University, our common read for first-year students in 2015 was Spare Parts, the story of a team of undocumented high school students—Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda, Oscar Vazquez, and Crisitan Arcega—who beat elite college teams, including MIT, in an underwater robotics competition. While teams from universities had funding from corporations like ExxonMobile and access to state-of-the art polymers, the young high school students from Phoenix, Arizona relied on their natural gifts in engineering, along with knowledge gained from watching family members working as gardeners and mechanics. These experiences proved more practical than the academic preparation of an MIT robotics team, despite being a low-tech approach to problem solving.

Lorenzo, a member of the team, served as our convocation speaker. When we dispersed into discussion groups with students, a colleague brought Lorenzo to my group. Our star-struck first-year students could hardly say a word, and we struggled to find a way to help them engage. Then, it hit me. Like Lorenzo, I was brought to the United States as a child. We were roughly the same age, the same skin tone. We spoke the same English, used the same slang. But I am documented—first through a green card, later through naturalization—and he is not. I began drawing these parallels between us aloud and Lorenzo continued. We discussed our experience of coming to the United States as children and asked our students to consider why we arrived under such different circumstances—my family welcomed and handed green cards, his unwelcome and having to hide in the shadows in fear of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), which would later be abolished by George W. Bush and replaced with United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). I remember the looks on our students’ faces as, on the very first day of college, they were confronted with the contradictions of United States government policy and struggled to rationalize how two people who seemed to have so much in common could have their lives, educations, career prospects, and entire worlds so immeasurably shaped by decisions made by politicians.

And here we are, 30 years after Lorenzo and I came to the United States as children, watching the lives of more children shaped by irrational government policy.

For immigrants like me, whose entry to the United States was marked by tremendous privilege, it can be easy to think we’re entirely different from the families and children at the borders. And, in many ways, we do not share their experiences. The ease of immigration for my family, for example, was facilitated by the fact that we were coming from the United Kingdom, that my parents were physicians, that we were Kashmiri, that we were not fleeing violence, poverty, or a government. How ironic that those with the least need for safe harbor in the United States are most likely to receive papers?

But what we do share is a right to human dignity, to not be detained or incarcerated in the process of migration, to not be called “animals” who “infest” the United States.

As such, my investment in this project comes from believing that it is incumbent on those of us who immigrated to the United States with ease to recognize the tremendous governmental infrastructure, complicity of immigrant communities, and deployment of our tax dollars that is preventing people from being able to find safety in the United States—people who need to be welcomed here a lot more than we did. It is our responsibility to mobilize our communities to dismantle these forces, a product of white supremacy, to create a future in which asylum seekers are treated with respect and decency, neither of which include their de facto criminalization or detention by virtue of the fact that they are searching for sanctuary.

Thus, I joined our small team of researchers, many of us immigrants, in the hope of shedding light on these issues through data visualizations. Together, we have brought our varied backgrounds, research skills, and shared experience in digital humanities and minimal computing to bear on one of the most vexing problems of the day. We have sought to start a conversation about how to find data on the United States government’s treatment of immigrants and how to visualize the geo-spatial, financial, and infrastructural dimensions of immigration. With this information, perhaps our communities will begin to see the magnitude of the threat to human dignity occurring on our watch and the complex machinery driving government policy. Perhaps rather than feeling helpless, we can recognize that we have skills to tread these troubled waters, particularly in collaboration with each other.

I like to think, as well, that in its design and execution, this project is a small tribute to young, undocumented people like Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda, Oscar Vazquez, and Crisitan Arcega. Every day, they demonstrate that brilliance, ingenuity, and the ability to put together skills honed in the unlikeliest of places while simply trying to survive can be applied to other problems. In this spirit, through our assemblage of skills, we’ve put together a low-tech project using the tools we have at our disposal for a timely but careful intervention. At a time of political upheaval and obfuscation, our ability to draw on their example and use what we have, to do what we can, is the only way that human dignity will survive.

Roopika Risam is an Assistant Professor of English at Salem State University. She is the author of New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy (Northwestern UP, 2018).