Northwestern’s Immigrant Justice Project started last Fall Quarter as a text message sent from Vietnam to France.
The text came from Hayeon Kim, a Weinberg senior. Kim came up with the idea for an immigrant rights club while she was studying abroad in Vietnam. She messaged Naib Mian*, a Medill senior who was studying in Paris at the time, knowing he would be on board.
They submitted their proposal to the university, and the club was officially recognized last spring. According to Wildcat Connection’s description of IJP, the club is led by “a coalition of students seeking to learn and advocate for immigrant rights on Northwestern’s campus, in the greater Chicago area and on a national scale."
Kim and Mian have dealt with immigration on a very personal level. Originally born in Korea, Kim lived in Mexico for a year when she turned five before her family immigrated to the U.S., stopping first in Texas, then settling in New Jersey. While her immigrant experience has informed the work she’s done with IJP, she says it wasn’t until she came to Northwestern that she became interested in immigration politics. “It’s kind of like saying, when did you start thinking about the origin of your name?” she says of her immigrant identity. “It’s with me, I think about it every day. It’s not until I learned how it came to be that I started thinking about it academically.”
Mian was born and raised in the U.S., but his parents immigrated from Pakistan. He started to become interested in immigrant politics as a teenager when he met José Antonio Vargas, an immigration rights activist who was born in the Philippines. Vargas helped Mian put a face to immigration activism and how it intersects with journalism. Before starting IJP, Mian said he and Kim were just two acquaintances who shared a mutual interest.
While Kim says IJP is still “trying to figure out what [it] is,” the club has mainly focused on immigrants’ citizen rights, both on and off campus. Education, she believes, promotes political progress.
“Awareness creates improvements,” she says, adding that IJP focuses on immigration issues around the country and how they interact with societal institutions, such as the criminal justice and education systems. She says that Northwestern’s student body is not a homogeneous community, and it’s important to recognize the American “myth” of a good immigrant versus a bad immigrant. “Good immigrants,” she explains, are imagined by society as those who participate in American culture in an “acceptable” way, whereas “bad immigrants” are those who ultimately do not have equitable access to resources that allow them to be accepted into the American imagination and therefore become criminalized.
Weinberg sophomore Martina Piñeiros, an IJP member who now serves on the club’s executive board, hopes IJP can make a difference in how Northwestern thinks about the immigrant experience. “When you think of immigrant, you have a very specific image in your head,” she says. “It’s nice to have a place where you can debunk that.”
Piñeiros, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 5, acknowledges that her immigrant experience has been drastically different from those who are considered by the government to be “illegal.”
Kim agrees, pointing out that it’s hard to grasp how much of a disadvantage undocumented students are at in an academic setting. She and Mian say American citizens have a “backpack of documented privilege,” citing basic taken-for-granted things that come as a result of citizenship such as licenses, financial aid, being more hirable in the job search, the ability to have a credit card, not to mention the social privileges of citizenship like escaping judgment.
At Northwestern, there’s no organization, center or office that currently provides comprehensive services for undocumented students, Piñeiros says. There’s also no online community or documentation of data pertaining to immigrant students. Mian says Northwestern has a lot of opportunity for improvements specifically for those students whose first language is not English, explaining that as it stands, there are no translated tours or translated texts.
But for IJP, advocating goes beyond Northwestern’s campus. The organization sent a few members to Washington, D.C., Kim included, for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals/Deferred Action for Parents of Americans protests this summer. They rallied against the failure of Congress to pass the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, which would grant temporary amnesty to the parents of children given citizenship privileges under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
“It was pretty awesome going from campus to the national debate arena, knowing that our personal experience translates from campus to the national rhetoric as well,” Kim says.
Being able to make a real-world difference is important to the founding members. Last spring, they helped sponsor a workshop about the immigration system and its ambiguity at Evanston Township High School. They also held a large speaker event called “Undocumented and Asian” on campus in partnership with the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, which brought in noteworthy speakers including activist Ju Hong, an undocumented student who graduated from University of California, Berkeley, to discuss immigration.
Kim is uncertain about what this year holds for IJP, but she says there is a possibility of having another large speaker event or two. She hopes to continue shifting the way students think about immigration; specifically, IJP members make finding pride in immigrant status a priority.
“It used to be a hardship to be an immigrant, but now I think of it as a strength – we are multi-talented,” Kim says. “We are bilingual and take care of adult responsibilities for our families. I feel that we are stronger as a community when we realize our strengths. They aren’t obstacles. They are what makes us us.”
Editor's note: Mian has previously contributed to NBN.