By Maricela Aguilar
Today we arrived in Anniston, Alabama. The air conditioner was working once again, and I had been able to catch up on sleep and I was ready to take on the afternoon. What I was not ready for were the words of Hank Thomas, one of the Freedom Riders that fifty years ago rode the bus that was set on fire on its way out of Anniston.
He spoke on the second-class citizenship generated by Jim Crow laws, and how he was mandated to serve in the military during the Vietnam War to protect the freedom of the Vietnamese and yet was not free himself in his own country; how sadly ironic, to be seen as worthy of fighting for your country’s prestige and ideology, and yet to be unworthy of inclusion in its creed of equality, to be perpetually living in a state of second-class citizenship in which you are theoretically immediately included yet always practically not.
This is exactly the position millions of undocumented students find themselves today. Undocumented students who through no fault of their own are American in every sense of the word, but lack the legal paperwork to prove so. Undocumented students who have lived in America the majority of their lives and have followed the American demands of excelling in academics, participating in community service, taking part in extracurricular activities and being law-abiding American citizens, and yet cannot legitimately claim they are legally American.
American citizenship should rest on civic engagement and ideology—a deep belief in the words of the founding fathers. Hank was an American yet had additional legal restraints that prevented him from truly being so. Undocumented students are Americans yet they lack a legal claim to this identity. Hopefully in the near future, just like Hank was able to bring down the legal restraints on his Americaness, so too will undocumented students be successful in legally establishing theirs.