Does he look illegal? American activist fights for immigrant rights
Click here to listen to a podcast of the entire interview with Roberto Reveles.When I met immigrant rights activist Roberto Reveles on a blazing hot summer day in downtown Phoenix for an interview, he was wearing a shirt that said, “Do I look illegal?” And I thought to myself yes, you do. But as I would soon find out, there is much more to this American son of Mexican immigrants than his sense of humor.
Reveles endured segregation growing up in a small Arizona mining town, graduated from Georgetown University, spent 24 years as a congressional staffer and later became an executive at a mining company. In 2005, after returning home to Arizona where he sensed an anti-immigrant climate, Reveles became an activist. I suspect that fighting for the rights of immigrants is his favorite job so far.
Currently the board president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, he teaches citizenship classes, has been involved with the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum and was the founding president of Somos America, a coalition of community groups against anti-immigrant legislation.
When local sheriff’s deputies raid Phoenix-area neighborhoods to arrest undocumented immigrants, Reveles joins fellow volunteers in following the officers around with cameras and legal pads.
“We hope that our presence lends a certain hesitancy for them to abuse the people they are stopping,” Reveles said, adding that he has not noted any physical violence.
The parents may not come home…
“Much of this is psychological damage,” he said. “Women are pulled over with children in their car. The woman is arrested and a call goes out to relatives to come pick up the children before Child Protective Services comes and takes custody of the children. The children are crying and can’t understand why their mother is being arrested. The damage that it does to the family unit is just horrific. These are living nightmares that children are experiencing.”
Reveles advises immigrant families to post on the refrigerator door the names and phone numbers of individuals and organizations children can call in case their parents don’t come home.
On the day the Arizona governor signed Senate Bill 1070, which allows local law enforcement to arrest those they suspect to be undocumented, Reveles was supervising a group of middle school students protesting the legislation. While the group was resting at a park, he noticed another group of six white elementary school girls encircling a Hispanic girl. The Hispanic girl was crying, and the other girls were hugging and consoling her.
When Reveles asked what was wrong, the girls responded that their friend was afraid her parents would be taken away because of what the governor was signing that day. Reveles found the girls’ chaperones and told them they needed to comfort the distressed little girl.
As he walked way, one of the non-Hispanic girls called out to him saying, “Señor, señor. Muchas gracias!”
As he recounted the story, emotion crept into his voice. “When you see a child being comforted by her classmates, it was at the same time a sad, but beautiful scene. No child should have to experience that kind of threat to their livelihood.”
Pain of the Past
Reveles said that his life experience has taught him to be sensitive to the needs of others. Born in Miami, Arizona to Mexican immigrant parents, Reveles knows what it’s like to be a minority. Although his parents came into the United States legally in 1920 during the Mexican Revolution, the family was still vulnerable to U.S. government repatriation activities in the 1930s.
“When I was a toddler, when a white Anglo male would walk into the neighborhood, we knew that we would all run home, close the door, lock it and pull the shades,” Reveles said. “If somebody knocked, you would not answer.”
As a child, Reveles attended a school designated for students of Mexican and Apache Indian backgrounds. At the movie theater and his church, he was ushered to the balcony or aisle where Hispanics were allowed to sit. The only time the YMCA would let him swim was the day before the dirty pool water would be drained.
His parents adapted, respected authority and “did not rock the boat.” But they were not the only influence on his life.
Mexican-Americans began returning from World War II and “deciding that no, they would no longer go to the balcony. No, they would no longer sit on the Mexican side.”
“They had gone abroad as Americans, had fought on the side of our country, and yes, they would become candidates for election to the local town council,” Reveles said. “That taught me that there’s no need to be taking a backseat to anybody.”
Through his activism, Reveles has challenged county jail conditions, racial profiling on an interstate highway and laws that would criminalize offering almost any form of assistance to undocumented immigrants. He calls the immigrant youth who would benefit from the DREAM Act “innocents.”
According to Reveles, the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070 has the mission of making life so miserable for immigrants that they will self deport. “I find that to be a horrible expression of public policy in the United States. Where are people’s values in terms of being humane to each other? That goes contrary to almost every faith I’m familiar with.”
Through his volunteer work with Humane Borders and other organizations, Reveles has spoken with people before, during and after they have completed an illegal border crossing. “They all say the same thing: ‘I prefer not to put my life at risk. I prefer to walk through the legal port of entry. But that is in practical terms impossible when the waiting period is from 8, to 12, to 14 years for a visa to enter the country.”
What Reveles would like to see happen with immigration policy is a delicate balance. In his view, immigration should be managed in an orderly way, but open to welcoming guest workers with all the same privileges and rights as American workers. He wants to eliminate exploitation of immigrant workers while also avoiding any negative impacts on the number of jobs available to U.S. citizens.
Reveles would like to see policies that delineate between human trafficking and drug trafficking. “They’re not the same,” he said, adding that “we need to come down hard on the criminal activity both north and south of the border.”
Reveles had a strong response about recent calls to alter the Constitution’s 14th Amendment so that babies born to undocumented parents would no longer have automatic citizenship. He called it “nonsensical, irrational, immoral and hysteria against a community of workers.” He also considers the use of the term “anchor baby” dehumanizing and against family values.
Despite what he perceives as an attack on a vulnerable immigrant community, Reveles said he also sees people standing up for what they believe, registering to vote and becoming activists. Even U.S.-born Hispanics have started caring more about immigration issues because they feel more at risk for racial profiling, Reveles said.
“People are energized as I’ve never seen them energized before,” he said. “We need to continue what has historically been a welcoming environment for people who have been seeking to better their lives.”