Editor’s Note: Oscar R. Cornejo Casares ’17 is a founding member of the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and Dreamers (CoFIRED) and has served as co-director in the 2014 and 2015 cycles. We spoke with Oscar about his background, his role in CoFIRED, and U.S. immigration policy.
The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Can you tell us a little about yourself, for example, where you are from, what you are involved in on campus, and your role in CoFIRED?
Oscar R. Cornejo Casares (ORCC): I was born in Morales, Mexico, which is a state just south of Mexico City. I lived there until I was 5. In the year 2000, we came to the United States. My dad was already here, he came two years before us. He worked in California as a farmworker. It was me, my brother who was two years old, and my mom who migrated. We came through the Tijuana-San Diego border entry. It was me and my brother first and my mom was transported differently through a coyote, which is a human smuggler. So, we were separated and there was this woman, I don’t remember what she looked like, we were in the back of her car. She represented us as her children, I’m assuming fake passports, I don’t remember the procedure (I was 5), but I remember crying and crossing and wondering where my mother was because I was like “who is this person?” It was a confusing experience. Actually, looking back at it, I worried more for my mom because coyotes are known to abuse migrant women during the clandestine crossing, but we made it to California safely. Then we came to Illinois. I live in the northern suburbs of Chicago, we came there because my great aunt on my mom’s side lived there so we had family there. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went through the education system there. Around when I was 10, I moved to a different area and the jurisdiction changed and that was when I started to go to a predominantly white upper middle class school system, which mirrors my experience here at Dartmouth. I went through that system in high school and dedicated myself solely to education because that is what my dad wanted me to do. That is why we came: better opportunity, escaping poverty. I just focused on that: my education, my education, my education. I was lucky enough to be part of a college access program in high school, which helped vulnerable, but high potential, students to get to college. Without the program, I wouldn’t be here at Dartmouth, because they took care of everything. As a working class, first generation immigrant, my parents and I didn’t have the knowledge to navigate the college application process. This program literally got me into Dartmouth. In 2013, I came to Dartmouth. I had applied early decision. I had visited before. I loved it. I decided to come to Dartmouth one because of the money, and two they were willing to admit me and provide financial aid. As an undocumented student, the landscape in terms of college admissions is very particular, and it’s not uniform, you have to be what’s called hyper-documented, meaning you have to be really extremely well qualified to go to these institutions. So I came to Dartmouth 2013, I’m about to graduate, I’m a ‘17 senior. I came and I realized there wasn’t a support network at all for undocumented students before me.
They tried to organize in terms of formal organizations, they couldn’t. I came in fall of 2013. I was mentored by two undocumented students, they were seniors at the time. I told one of them that we need to start something for undocumented students because there was no support network for us. And that’s where CoFIRED came about, and it’s been a very successful organization. I continued working with them. Also, I am a Mellon Mays Fellow, which is a fellowship here at Dartmouth that helps students get to graduate school, providing them professional development skills, and academic resources to go on to graduate school and become professors. I’ve also been involved with OPAL, the Office of Pluralism and Leadership. I’m also a student adjudicator in the Office of Judicial Affairs. I’ve been involved with La Allianza Latina, which is our student Latino organization here on campus. So I’ve been a very heavily involved student both in terms of organizations and activism as well.
TDR: Shifting over towards CoFIRED, can you go a little deeper into what inspired you to start CoFIRED? And also what does your membership look like?
ORCC: Coming in fall 2013, there were two big events that sparked the creation of the organization. You might remember in that time there was a controversial game at UT Austin called “Catch the Illegal Alien,” which sparked national controversy. And I was very upset by it. There was also a “Drop the I Word” Campaign, I think at UC Berkeley. I think The Dartmouth Review covered it my freshman year and I was upset by some of the commentary that was made, specifically by the newspaper, because I was reading and coming in and thinking that Dartmouth was this inclusive place, but it really wasn’t. The statements that were being made don’t reflect my reality or the reasons that we came to the US. So, UC Berkeley, I think, successfully got their Senate and their school to drop the “I word” and so I wanted something similar to happen at Dartmouth, and I didn’t want a thing similar to the Illegal Alien Game to happen at Dartmouth. And also, I saw the lack of support in terms of mental health resources, in terms of legal support, in terms of navigating Dartmouth as an undocumented student. There wasn’t anything that was consolidated in a structural form. So, I told my mentor Eduardo at that time, a senior, “We need to start something, we should do something.” So we spent that December break, in the fall of 2014, drafting a constitution and we were approved January 22, 2014, the next month. The membership has shifted over the years and I think that speaks to (1) the national landscape, (2) immigration policy, and (3) the recruitment and the things that not only CoFIRED, but also the Admissions Office has done. In the beginning, it was led by specifically undocumented students, and it was made to do advocacy work. That was the main thing I had envisioned at first – advocacy work. Now, the way I’ve seen it, it hasn’t evolved to meet the current needs, but I created all these positions alongside Eduardo to give these students the opportunity to gain leadership and be empowered and realize that their condition is not a subjugated existence, but rather a way for them to draw strength and be successful at Dartmouth. There were all these directorship positions that were created and we were meant to be there as a leeway[sic] between the undocumented students, the rest of us, and the admissions and faculty and staff at Dartmouth. We were that intermediary between the two. Because we didn’t have representation, we didn’t have a voice for our issues that hadn’t been addressed or had been very under the table, underground, hush-hush, don’t ask, or don’t tell. Now the membership has shifted, because the number of undocumented students has increased over time. There are about 30-40 [undocumented students at Dartmouth] now and we get that from some of the Dartmouth offices, and our personal connections. [That is] the number we estimate, between undergrad and graduate students at Dartmouth. It is not the largest amount, but it is still a sizable amount. The shift has happened because of a higher number of DACA recipients. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a program President Obama passed, an executive order in 2012, which allows certain undocumented immigrants to receive deportation deferral and work authorization if they pose no national security threat to the US. I think about 750,000 got it, so most of the undocumented students at Dartmouth are this particular type of immigrant. The membership, though, is still maintained by the executive board and then communicated to the undocumented students at Dartmouth.
TDR: You spoke a little bit about your mission as an organization. When you started, you focused initially on advocacy, but current times have changed that. Can you elaborate on that? Has your approach changed since the election of President Trump?
ORCC: So the mission, in particular, is to advance the rights of undocumented students at Dartmouth and beyond. In the beginning, we were thinking about ways the landscape is organized here at Dartmouth. We were using particular words, and terms, and language that I don’t think allowed us to come to the table and have dialogue. So that’s why the first thing we focused on was language, and the “Drop the I Word” Campaign: to eliminate and understand the implications of using the words “illegal, illegal immigrant, illegals,” and how that has become racialized, pejorative, and how it is not an appropriate term to use. So, the beginning stage was to change the way we were talking, having a discussion, having dialogue. Then it shifted towards providing resources for undocumented students in terms of OPAL, Admissions, Financial Aid, CPD, Dick’s House, and all the facets of Dartmouth that would allow you to be successful. After that solidified, we started to move to more local issues. We started to expand in terms of looking at the farmworkers here in the Upper Valley, looking at connecting with churches and other local organizations in New England. We are the only organization in New Hampshire that focuses on undocumented student issues. The only two other organizations are a local chapter of a Massachusetts immigrant rights coalition and New Hampshire Granite Staters for Immigration reform, which I think is a center-right or a center-left organization. But there is no one in New Hampshire who does what we do, and I think that speaks to the politics of New Hampshire. Now, our approach has become more reactive, in terms of the national immigration politics with the current administration, that we have in the Presidency[sic] and his current politics towards immigrants. I see a lot more coalition work being taken into fruition with other facets of Dartmouth. That has been the underpinning of the organization: to form alliances and work across these different groups to come together and talk about immigration. I think overall it has shifted from talking solely about undocumented students to talking more broadly about immigrants. I see more conversations about Muslims and Muslim immigrants, so I think it has expanded.
TDR: What is difference, from your perspective, between illegal alien and undocumented immigrant? Why does it matter that we use one and not the other?
ORCC: My experience in being called illegal and an illegal alien has been one that is meant that is meant to create difference and target and dehumanize. When we look at the way we treat others and the way we perceive certain people, the “I Word” is categorizing me outside of the imaginary or outside of what the society is. It doesn’t critique how law, the state, policy, or the government creates the conditions for this certain type of existence. How U.S. immigration law, for example, in the 1960s led to the rise of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. There was a particular strategy in terms of the government, that they didn’t think the undocumented immigrants were going to come, but that was the consequence of it. The economic stability of countries is affected by immigration law and U.S. foreign policy, which creates undocumented immigration. Then, once they come here, they are vilified and demonized, because they are thought of as to have broken the law, to be criminals, to have undermined the rule of law in the U.S. Those are things to consider, however, I don’t think that argument in terms of threatening the rule of law is a particularly critical one, because we are not here to undermine U.S. law. My dad and mom came to the U.S. because they were living in poverty, they did not have an opportunity for anything, and they were willing to leave their home, everything they had, they were willing to leave their family, risk their lives, pay the smuggler to come to the U.S.—not for themselves, but for their children. It did not matter to them about this particular idea of the law. We tend to think of it as this unbiased, apolitical thing, but we don’t consider the architects of the law, the ideologies of the architects, so immigration law is put into a particular context, and I think we need to bring that into the conversation. So, when we use illegal alien, we are first describing people as outside the law, but we are very much inside the law, and it’s a way to dehumanize and exclude people who are perceived to be a threat to the U.S. An alien, as well, is to use ideas of foreignness. I don’t know why people perceive me to be foreign or to be an alien. I am not from Mars – I am not an extraterrestrial. Even though it has two denotations, we are talking about connotations – we are talking about the way it manifests in day to day relationships that we have with people. And the way that it has been applied is that it has been used to dehumanize people, to create a certain type of discourse that excludes people. To use undocumented in some way is to understand that illegal alien is dehumanizing. Undocumented isn’t perfect—I don’t think anyone is saying that—undocumented has a very particular use. It just means that these people don’t have U.S. citizenship, they are here without authorization, they lack these papers. The use of undocumented is to move away from the way illegal alien has been used. And the Library of Congress has demonstrated that this word is pejorative and has been used to denigrate people.
TDR: If you were given control of American immigration policy, for however long it took to implement your ideal approach, what would that look like?
ORCC: The first thing we need to talk about is separating the conversation between immigration and terrorism. 9/11 created this conflation of the two, of terrorism and immigration. Those two conversations are related, but not the same. One thing people don’t understand is that right before 9/11 happened, the Mexican president Vicente Fox and George Bush were in conversation to establish a new labor program, a new way to regularize immigration, so it was moving toward a positive step and then 9/11 happened and so things were going to happen but then 9/11 happened and those conversations never happened again, in terms of thinking about what is the best way these two countries in particular can move forward with immigration. Divorce the two. Second, we need to move away from militarizing the border. Militarizing the border has created migrant deaths. It has created these unintended consequences. So I would move away from militarizing the border. If we are thinking about the borders as the problem, why isn’t the Canadian border being militarized? We are only thinking about the Mexican border. The U.S. has another border up north. A big, huge border – what’s happening up there? We need to be having a conversation about borders.
TDR: To be fair, there is not mass migration occurring from Canada into the United States. Policymakers are simply leveraging economic resources to defend borders that are most strategically important right now for the United States. Because there is no mass migration from Canada, there is no need to fortify the Canadian border.
ORCC: If something were to happen and it came from the Canadian border, then we’re going to have a big conversation about why we didn’t do what we did with the other border. Power relations in terms of the two, and relations between Canada [and the U.S.] have been different than relations between Mexico [and the U.S.]. Again, these were colonial legacies that were being impacted. The second thing I would talk about is understanding refugees, asylum seekers, and understanding how the way visas are being implemented right now needs to be updated and modernized. There is this huge backlog in terms of these cases of visas from certain countries—in particular the Philippines and Mexico. There’s huge 20-year backlogs, so we need to modernize that system in terms of being able to process everything. In terms of thinking about undocumented immigration: I don’t know if I have specific answers to that. The way I have rationalized it is to (1) understand in some way the economic conditions that exist, making sure the people that are leaving their homes stay in their homes. If my mom and dad had a choice, they would have stayed home, they wouldn’t have come to the US. They did it out of a way to survive. If the economic conditions in their country helped them to stay and be able to live there [in Mexico], there wouldn’t be a reason for us to do a clandestine border crossing or come here unauthorized. If we marry immigration policy and foreign policy and understand ways to address economics in foreign countries, that can move us forward. In terms of people who are already here, there are already 11-12 million of us. There are parents, there are children, there are grandmas, there are laborers, farmworkers. Everyone in every facet of society, from doctors to farmworkers, laborers to teachers. I’m a student, my dad is a laborer. There are a wide variety of things, but I think we need to regularize, we need to give them a pathway to citizenship, because many of them have been here for decades. They see themselves as members of society. I don’t know what threat my dad places to this country. He pays his taxes, and actually he pays taxes and doesn’t get the money back he would be getting back. He pays more into the system than the system gives us back. We’re not on welfare, none of that, because my dad and my family is too proud for that. So we don’t get any benefits from the state. I pay my taxes as well. I’m working, paying my tuition here. We don’t pose any type of threat, at least in terms of thinking about the safety of the US. We do everything for the state. My dad recognizes the position he is in, so we need to think about legalizing the undocumented immigrant population that poses no threat to this country – in particular, the Dreamers or the DACA recipients, those who have already proven they are no threat to this country.
TDR: Thank you for personalizing it. That is a really important part of this interview, and a reason we wanted to speak with you, but regarding means-tested welfare programs, a Census Bureau study showed that 50% of households headed by undocumented immigrants use at least one means-tested welfare program. In terms of dramatically reshaping the undocumented experience in the United States, how do you think we should prioritize those who are already here? Also, you mentioned that we should focus on demilitarizing and opening up our borders and allowing people to come into the United States. Do the benefits of these actions for new illegal immigrants outweigh the costs such as depressed wages and negative economic growth, for example?
ORCC: I’m not saying open up the borders. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I think a country has its right to exercise its sovereignty over its borders. I’m saying demilitarize the borders, move away from these helicopters, the amount of people stationed at this place.
TDR: That’s essentially going to lead to mass migration into the United States. You can’t remove enforcement and expect things to stay the same. Enforcement is there for a reason.
ORCC: I don’t think mass migration would happen. But in terms of separating between the two, the border and those already here, I think the conversation that we have had thus far in terms of the discourse in Congress has always been about national security and border enforcement. That has been the one thing specifically the political right and some people on the left have continuously focused on and not addressed some of the other issues. The border is very secure right now. I don’t know how much more secure you can make it. If you’re going to build a wall, build a wall, but that’s not going to do anything. If you build a 40-foot wall, people are going to bring a 41-foot ladder. If you build it underground, people are going to go under the side, or find some other ways. I think we underestimate the agency and the power that smugglers and underground networks have in terms of migration.
TDR: So you just disproved your own point. We were talking about how if we remove enforcement, there would be mass migration, and you disagreed. But you just discussed how if we build a wall, which is seen by many as an increased level of enforcement, migrants would more heavily rely on these smugglers to get into the country, and mass migration would still occur. So they go hand in hand – removing enforcement, and increasing migration.
ORCC: That’s assuming that you think people seeing less enforcement are going to come in. That’s not the reason people migrate.
TDR: It will just incentivize it more, because the cost for doing so will be less.
ORCC: I don’t think so, because people are leaving for a specific reason. They’re not incentivized to leave because it’s less costly to go. People do not leave their homes willingly. There has to be a specific reason for their migration, a specific context.
TDR: However, if there is this reason to go, and there’s less enforcement at the border, there would be a lower “barrier to entry.”
ORCC: I think what we’re missing from this conversation is that we think all migration comes through the border. About 40% of undocumented immigrants in this country overstayed their visa; it’s not a matter of border stuff, it’s a matter of the visa system. Again, why is it that they left in the first place? I think that’s the root issue that we have to talk about. You can enforce all you want, or you can enforce nothing, but either way, there’s going to be migration. Migration has been an aspect of the human condition for all of history. I think we need to couple a lot of the strategies that we’re talking about – militarization and securing the border has been the only thing we’ve been doing. None of this other stuff that I’ve mentioned has been done.
TDR: You spoke a little bit about granting amnesty, or a pathway to citizenship, and focused on those who were here paying taxes, hard-working, etc. Do you have any position on granting amnesty for criminals who have committed felony crimes in the United States?
ORCC: I do a lot of research on undocumented immigration and work with undocumented immigrants. They talk a lot, for example, about getting arrested for civil disobedience. If they’ve committed enough misdemeanors, it becomes a felony. So, by that definition, they’d become a criminal. But if you look at the context in which that became a felony, they were fighting for their rights. If we’re thinking about excluding criminal aliens for a lack of citizenship, that doesn’t make sense for me to be able to exclude someone for fighting for their rights or doing what they believed was the pathway. But I think this conversation about criminal and non-criminal seeks to divide, not only the undocumented immigrants, but from moving forward in creating immigration policy. I’ve been called criminal too, and the only thing I’ve done was I came to this country. But there is no uniform understanding of what it is to be a criminal.
TDR: But that’s what the law is for. We can make a law that defines what a criminal is and take action in not granting amnesty to those people.
ORCC: I think we’re creating a very dangerous discussion when we go from criminal/non-criminal because that’s saying that criminals are undeserving of membership, of being in this country.
TDR: In many cases, they are [undeserving]. The fact remains that, although it’s not common, there have been cases where immigrants have committed murder and other heinous crimes. And there is no legal precedent for admitting them into our country and granting blanket amnesty for them.
ORCC: I think we have to have a conversation about the ‘gradation of criminality.’ Criminality is not a uniform thing, and so if we’re talking about murderers and rapists, that’s a different conversation than getting three misdemeanors from getting arrested because of civil disobedience. That’s a different conversation that I think we need to have as well. In general, however, immigrants are less likely to be criminal. We’re talking about a very, very small percentage here. What about the rest of us? I think we’re very focused on this particular thing, creating deserving and undeserving, good immigrants and bad immigrants.
TDR: It’s the role of the government to promote the safety and protection of all its citizens. Shouldn’t the government be working to ensure that? If criminals are committing crimes against both immigrant communities and citizens, shouldn’t it be the role of the government to be able to prevent future crimes from occurring?
ORCC: Again, we’re talking about a very small population. I’m not saying that the government shouldn’t protect its citizens, what I’m saying is that the rest of us are non-criminals. We’re talking about this small, specific part of the population, and yes, we need to figure out a way to prevent these people from posing a public safety threat or affect the rest of the people in the country. I think that’s what you’re probably trying to get me to say. But my take on it is that this conversation between criminal and non-criminal is divisive.
TDR: We’ve had a lot of talk about shifting conversations and public opinion, but do you have any specific laws or actions that you feel we should be advancing to start to fix these problems in the immigration systems and with undocumented immigration?
ORCC: I think I already mentioned a lot of the stuff I would do, but the one thing about the immigration system is that it needs to be modernized and needs to reflect the current state that we’re in. Deporting 11-12 million people is simply not possible. It will be an economic strain on taxpayers, which is why ICE prioritizes and is strategic towards its targets, but even then it’s problematic, because they’re arresting and detaining DACA recipients who don’t pose any threat to this country. It’s also a conversation of deportation and how that is married with private industrial complex.
TDR: Can you elaborate on that?
ORCC: The private prison industrial complex is this complex between government and states and these national corporations that are for-profit prisons, so they gain money from having people in jails and containment facilities. Private detention centers are incentivized to have a certain number of detained people, typically people of color and undocumented immigrants, to create and sustain their economic structures. They gain money from bodies.
TDR: We don’t live in a nation where the state is the judge, jury, and executioner. There’s a legal system, where police can arrest someone, you go to a court, and there’s a jury and judge. It’s not this system where the warden of a private prison can say, “Okay, we’re going to round up these people and haul them into our jail.” That’s not how it works in the United States.
ORCC: Well you’d be surprised at how border agents and ICE operate. It’s very aggressive. I’ve seen some videos of how they treat people; it’s dehumanizing. You’re also assuming the court system is fair and efficient; it’s not. It’s very much backlogged. We need to modernize that system. We need to be able to process and do things efficiently. I think we need to not have these private prisons at all, which benefit from having people in their facilities. That’s a broader conversation about criminality worth thinking about. Anyway, pivoting back: deportation is one aspect. Modernizing the visa system, demilitarizing the border, and making sure that undocumented immigrants in this country are on a pathway to citizenship. A foreign policy that ensures migrants stay in their country is not just the sole job of the U.S. That’s a job for all these states that have created these conditions.
TDR: How has the U.S. created these conditions in Mexico, for example?
ORCC: We begin first in 1848 after the end of the U.S.-Mexican War where the U.S. invaded Mexico and gained all that territory that is now the southwestern United States. Imagine that when the U.S. gained its independence, a few days later Canada came in and took half of the colonies; that’s the parallel I would make. Already a power relationship between the two states is created. Mae Ngai, a historian at Columbia University, describes this type of action in terms of laborers coming in later as a type of imported colonialism, where we have the people who historically lived in this area, now coming back and being laborers and being exploited in this area which was once theirs. We’re creating the conditions where we think of Mexicans as laborers, as people sustaining the U.S. economy, and that has been continuously the way that relationships have been, that Mexico supplies the labor and the U.S. fits them in this larger structure. We need to think about the role of the state again in creating immigrants to the U.S.
TDR: Do you have any plans for after graduation?
ORCC: I applied to graduate school. I’ll be attending Northwestern University in the fall for my PhD in sociology, studying undocumented immigration, social movements, and sociology of law. My aspiration is to become a professor, be an educator, and continue doing research with this particular community.
TDR: Thank you, Oscar, for taking the time to speak with us. We wish you the best of luck in your future studies.