NOTE: I presented the following as a talk given at Columbia University as part of the “I am an Undocumented Immigrant: Let’s Talk About It!” held on April 25, 2016.
My name is Joel Sati, and I am an immigrant from Kenya. I came to this country at the age of nine, in 2002. I lived in Georgia for five years, and Maryland for six.
It was in my third of the six years in Maryland that I discovered my undocumented status, while applying to college in the fall of 2010. I had “forgotten” my social security number – or so I thought. I asked my mother what it was, and she plainly told me that I had no social because I had no papers. My lack of status meant that I was unable to enroll in college straight out of high school because of an inability to handle the cost. I restarted school at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland in January 2012.
That summer, I got introduced to the Maryland DREAM Act. As someone who nurtured an interest in philosophy, it was as good an opportunity as any to stand for something that I knew was right. More important, it was significant that others were standing right alongside in support of the law, which thankfully passed. Also coming along that summer was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA. DACA, though not perfect by any means, has been integral in allowing me to pursue my studies by securing study opportunities I otherwise would not have. After graduating from Montgomery College I moved to New York City to attend the City College of New York.
While a student, I organized with African Communities Together, mobilizing African youth around the New York State DREAM Act. I organized youth ranging from recent arrivals who struggle to find support systems as well as former and active gang members who motivate youth toward academic and personal achievement. Seeing a robust activist network germinate provided hope when I needed it most. I was homeless for my first three weeks organizing; it was not lost on me how surreal it was for me to provide assistance when I was too scared to seek help myself. Despite this and other hardships, I was able to graduate this past fall. This coming fall, I will begin my doctoral studies in law and philosophy at UC Berkeley as part of their Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program.
My disciplinary home is in philosophy, and, within that, political, legal, and moral philosophy. My research examines the personal and political situation of undocumented immigrants. Despite the complexity of the issue, attempts to explore the needs of undocumented immigrants through academic work or advocacy encounter social resistance and little empathy. To overcome that problem, my work takes a novel approach by trying to break through such resistance, which is rooted in the hostile political environment that advocacy for undocumented immigrants confronts.
For example, I’m working on a paper, which argues that given plausible assumptions about the psychology of undocumented immigrants, dealing with the fear of deportation alone will be insufficient protection for undocumented immigrants seeking protection of their basic rights. It is still in its draft stages, but I hope to examine the very real psychological trauma being undocumented exacts, especially in a political environment where we continue to be vilified and dehumanized.
My work sheds light on the undocumented immigrant experience and thus allows us to theorize about undocumented immigrants with as much nuance as we use when discussing the concerns that citizens, legal residents, and legal immigrants have about undocumented immigration. My goal is to use the tools of philosophy to frame the discussions on undocumented immigrants in a way that calls out the dehumanizing, ahistorical rhetoric that they face.
This bit leads to answering the question of what I can do to make undocumented immigrant issues more visible. I firmly believe that, in the struggle for justice, not everyone puts in work the same way. There are people in the movement who are visible through more traditional means: through marches, actions, and social media, among others. There are others who show resistance by simply existing, doing whatever the fuck they want to do; it is only recently that I understood the significance of even that as protest, especially for bodies like mine and for those less privileged than mine.
For me, theorizing about the undocumented experience is how I use my talents and my experiences to bring visibility to the issues; it is how I fight. I have this little mantra: if you want to change people’s views, you get into politics; if you want to change the debate itself, you get into philosophy. This work is more “behind the scenes” than traditional means of protest, but it is as important to be active when it comes to political analysis because it is important for those on the ground to have the tools to strongly critique the political institutions that oppress immigrants, LGBTQ folk, women, people of color, and people at the intersections. The goal is to bring to the fore views that we don’t see, or are purposefully covered up.
When it comes to changing the debate, this also applies to those within the immigrants’ rights movement itself. To shed more light, I should devote some time and talk about what it means to be undocumented and Black. It was not until the UndocuBlack Convening in January that I was in a space where undocumented black immigrants were not only safe in the immigrant movement, but were leading the conversation. I will try my best to give you a glimpse into this conversation.
To be undocumented and black is to find yourself at the nexus of to important sites of oppression. It is suffering incredible trauma on account of one’s blackness as well as one’s immigration status; I must admit, only now am I working through the effects of both these labels. One of the things I have become very sensitive to as a result of my experiences is the political environment in which issues of race and immigration get brought up. Reforming immigration systems will require that we reckon with the racist past of the West, and how dismantling borders and dismantling racism is inseparable work – you cannot choose to ignore one and say in good conscience that you are committed to the other.
Having undocumented and black spaces also puts me – and people like me – in a position to call out the anti-blackness that is present in many immigrant movement spaces. This anti-blackness pushes black immigrant issues to the backburner in the name of status and, only under the greatest pressure, begun to include black immigrant voices; there is a long way to go even then. Such anti-blackness is why I pulled back from the movement for a time, and I am just tentatively returning – though in a much different capacity.
A closing note: in doing this work, the institutions I will engage with as a philosopher are going to pose quite the challenge. I answer this question operating under the assumption that “institutions” refers to academia, though I guess I can talk about institutions more generally. As far as “institutions” being academia, the best answer I can give I will convey through this answer: philosophy is an overwhelmingly white discipline, and academia more broadly is a monochromatic institution. In addition to the demographic fact of academia’s whiteness by itself, this fact means that academia, as a system of knowledge validation, heavily favors certain kinds of knowledge (read: white). I’m preaching to the choir, but this is a point that I don’t even let myself forget.
I want to examine how the study of knowledge has not only excluded minds of color, but actively worked against the idea that people of color have minds. This is important for me because I want to use this undocumented, black mind to create work that demolishes borders, both “real” and imagined, and helps us get free.