Student-Hosted Conference Tackles Immigration Reform, Immigrant Experience

Yara poses in winter clothing in front of trees

Yara Quezada Marino '21

Many undocumented immigrants carry the fear that a deportation order will rip them out of the lives, homes and communities they've built. They may have seen friends or family forced out of the country or watched enforcement stings round up neighbors.

That dread can obscure the hope of who they are: caterers, aspiring doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists and poets whose promise gets lost in the context of their paperwork.

That's a message Davidson College students hope to spread as they host a national conference on immigration reform. More than 100 visiting students from around the country will spend the weekend of March 29-31 on campus. Davidson is the first southern college to host the Collegiate Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) conference, now in its ninth year.

"We have courageous, compassionate students who took on the hard work and tough issues of bringing this event to campus," said Davidson College President Carol E. Quillen. "They are living out the foundational values of the college, that we recognize the dignity and worth of every human being."

Besides breaking some stereotypes about immigrants, organizers hope that the backdrop of Davidson will help correct perceptions of the South as uniformly hostile to immigrants and spotlight those who want humane, common sense reform.

"It's really significant that it's being held at a small liberal arts college in the South," said Yara Quezada Marino '21, who grew up in nearby Concord, North Carolina. "People have a lot of misconceptions about the South. It's a chance to bring students from all over the United States together to see what immigrants here look like, to hear their stories and highlight what people are doing on a state and local level."

Davidson students say they hope the conference will expand the conversation beyond Latinx to include others from around the world and those who are often marginalized, such as LGBTQ+ immigrants. Poet and performer Yosimar Reyes and Alan Pelaez Lopez, a poet and artist, will be keynote speakers. Both have written extensively about the LGBTQ+ immigrant experience.

"One of our big themes is the intersectionality of immigration," Quezada Marino said. "What does it look like for black immigrants, or undocumented queer people?"

Student visitors will include Caribbean, Middle-Eastern and Asian immigrants from Princeton, in New Jersey, to Pomona College, in California.

The conference will give students a chance to share their stories of local activism that brought change to their communities.

A Harvard Medical School student and others in graduate programs will offer tips to navigate paying tuition and getting professional licenses as an undocumented immigrant. Davidson College professors will talk about the role immigrants play in the nation's economic and social fabric.

"With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment world-wide, we need to find more humane ways to address immigration," said Itziri Gonzalez-Barcenas '19, a conference organizer and former Student Government Association president. "It is important to me, my family and my community."

Gonzalez-Barcenas, who grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, knows the worry of being undocumented. She and her family live it every day. They came to the United States from Mexico when she was 5, and she is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

"I've seen how our immigration system causes all these unnecessary obstacles," she said. "I've seen how immigrants get exploited, through housing, jobs and health care. Among other things, we hope this conference can highlight the existence of artistic outlets for that anger and frustration because immigrants are talented, passionate and intelligent."


  • March 29, 2019