You know what's a really good conversation starter? Sharing the story of how I got arrested when I was 7 in Cuba. I guess technically, it wasn't an arrest. I didn't get fingerprinted and there isn't a mugshot of me in pigtails, both teeth missing, floating around some file cabinet in Havana's police department. You could say that I was detained, along with my mother, who definitely ended up getting arrested for participating in an act of civil disobedience against Fidel Castro's oppressive government. My dad fetched my brother and me from the police station while mom stayed behind bars for a few days until Castro's regime - try as it might - realized it couldn't come up with legitimate reasons for keeping her in prison indefinitely.
I've been thinking a lot about my experience as a child dissident lately, because several of my friends have acquired criminal records for participating in acts of civil disobedience over the last few months. They all either work for or volunteer at the Latin American Coalition, a local nonprofit, and their arrests have come as the result of pushing Congress on immigration reform. Their ultimate goal - comprehensive reform with a pathway to citizenship - hasn't quite been achieved yet. The Senate passed a bill with bipartisan support in June, but it has been stalled in the House with little hope of gaining traction.
Nevertheless, their actions have definitely made a huge difference in the lives of local immigrants. Just last month, Holman Acosta - who ended up in an immigration detention center in Georgia after getting stopped at a checkpoint for driving his son home from a soccer game without a license - was released the day after his fearless wife, Leisha, got arrested for defiantly blocking traffic at a major intersection in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. She was participating in an act of civil disobedience aimed at bringing awareness to her husband's unjust arrest (Holman had no previous criminal record) and the need for comprehensive immigration reform for the 11 million undocumented persons living in the United States.
Still, despite these positive results, some folk are dismissing the bold actions of immigration activists around the country as publicity stunts. In an article that ran in the Charlotte Observer about Jess George, executive director of the Latin American Coalition, commenters called her act of civil disobedience, "stupid," "shameful" and "a romanticized hype." And these comments weren't all necessarily coming from staunchly anti-immigrant right-wingers; many of those who believe in the need for immigration reform, including members of the Latino community, don't think that civil disobedience is the way to make it happen.
While I can respect the different opinions regarding the best way to move Congress on immigration reform, I do not think it is OK to bash the way anyone chooses to stand in solidarity with those being affected by this issue. I know firsthand that everyone isn't cut out to take such a public stand for what they believe. My own parents were on opposite sides of the spectrum on this. While my mom was all about participating in non-violent protests and speaking publicly against the government, she had been a huge supporter of the revolution in her teens and early 20s. It was my father who, quietly, thoughtfully and privately made her see the injustices and human-rights violations of the regime. When she chose to take her newfound opinions to the streets, he didn't stand in her way; instead he picked up his children from police stations and prayed for her release. She, on the other hand, never demanded that he risk spending time in prison by making his long-held opinions against the government public - after all, somebody needed to be there to prevent my brother and me from becoming guards of the state.
I think that true, meaningful change can be achieved by both types of actions - the public and the private. Casual conversations over beers and at coffee shops about the need for immigration reform are just as impactful as public vigils and marches. Arrests for civil disobedience can make as much of a difference as the ordinary lives of undocumented immigrants; lives motivated by the values we all share - family, hard work, education, dignity. Standing in solidarity for immigration reform can take many different forms, none of them more worthy than the others.
In my case, I wouldn't be surprised if my husband has to spend an evening in the near future at home with our children, praying for my release from jail because I've decided to participate in an act of civil disobedience in support of my undocumented brothers and sisters. After all, it runs in the family.