By Emily Cabaniss

When I was 6 or 7 years old, my mom was driving my sisters and me home from the mall. It was dark and she had her low beams on. About halfway home, her lights unexpectedly went out on the highway. In a panic, she pulled the car over to the side of the road and started flicking switches and twisting knobs trying to get the lights to come back on. I remember being scared at first – we didn’t have a cell phone, we were nowhere near an exit, and we were still pretty far from home. I didn’t know what we were going to do, and my sisters and I bombarded my mom with worried questions. We were making a bad situation much worse. But, then I remember my anxiety giving way to excitement when mom figured out the high beams still worked. Amazing! She had solved the problem! We had lights again! As mom cautiously pulled back into traffic, we continued on our way home – my sisters and I hovering over the back seat noisily “helping” navigate this new adventure.

Not too long into it, though, a driver going the other way flashed his lights at us, signaling mom to turn off her high beams. She was annoying on-coming traffic. Mom cursed nervously at the bind we were in (she was NOT going to turn off the only lights that were working!). She ignored the signal and anxiously continued down the road – high beams blazing. A few minutes later, there were blue lights in her mirror.

My sisters and I fell silent. My parents had been stopped by the police before and those encounters almost always ended with one of them getting a ticket. We knew mom was not happy. She pulled over and waited for the police officer to approach her window. Peering into the back seat at us and then back at mom, he asked her bluntly, “Why didn’t you turn down your high beams when I flashed you?” She explained the problem with her lights and said she knew it was wrong to drive with them on like that, but she didn’t know what else to do. The police officer nodded. He seemed to understand. He told her he was going to let her go as long as she promised to get her car fixed, smiled at us in the back seat, and walked away. She promised. We went home. She didn’t even get a ticket.

That’s how my story ends. Because my mom is a U.S. citizen with white skin, she got to drive away that night, her only lingering concern being how much it was going to cost to get her lights working again. But that’s not the way these kinds of traffic stops end for many undocumented immigrants. I live in North Carolina, a state that is now 100% Secure Communities. That’s the federal immigration enforcement program that deputizes local law enforcement officers to act as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under those circumstances, even minor traffic violations can result in detention and deportation if drivers are undocumented. That’s what happened to Erick Velazquillo. And it’s wrong.

As an ally in the immigrant rights movement, I am astounded by the increasing brutality of our current immigration enforcement laws. One mistake – one single mistake – and one’s life can change forever. Like my mom, Erick broke a traffic law. Like my mom, he was stopped by police. Like my mom, he offered an explanation. But, that’s where the similarities end. That’s where policies that legalize discrimination against undocumented immigrants lead Erick down a different path that could very well end in deportation. That’s the reality undocumented immigrants face in this country. It’s inhumane, cruel, and un-American. And it’s getting worse.

When Arizona passed SB 1070 last year, it sparked a vicious anti-immigrant flame that has spread rapidly across the states. It has emboldened politicians in Alabama to pass laws requiring principals to determine the legal status of children in their schools. It has led legislators in Georgia to ban college students from attending its top universities. And in North Carolina, undocumented youth trying to enroll in community colleges are forced by law to the back of the line, allowed to register for classes only after everyone else has.

In this kind of climate, where their very existence in this country is criminalized, many undocumented immigrant families are afraid – and rightly so. That makes it all the more surprising and inspiring that some of the young people who are directly impacted by these laws have begun standing up, speaking out, and fighting back.

Following the example set by growing numbers of undocumented youth in this country (here and here, too), Erick is “coming out” and sharing his story with the aim of putting a face on this struggle and demanding humane and progressive change in our immigration laws. I stand with Erick and all of the other undocumented youth who are boldly leading this fight. I ask you do the same.

Please sign this petition to help keep Erick home where he belongs and where we need him.