Before Kyende Kinoti began attending UNC as an international student, her high school in South Africa, which sends many of its seniors abroad, gave its students a warning.
“We know all of you are passionate about social justice and you might want to participate in protests,” her school said. “But remember you are an international in the U.S. and that you can be sent home.”
This warning stayed with Kinoti throughout her four years at UNC, keeping her from joining protests on issues that affected her life, from Silent Sam to Black Lives Matter. As the Trump administration cracks down on all types of immigration, she is aware what one unwarranted arrest can do.
As protesters for the BLM movement are arrested throughout the country, students with a vulnerable immigration status in the United States are hesitant to join. Some, like Kinoti, are on temporary international and exchange visas. Some are in the process of gaining citizenship. Others, like undocumented immigrants or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients, risk being detained by or handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
UNC graduate Hannah Kim became naturalized last November. She remembers the long legal documents, the hefty fees and the ‘60s-style carpet in the building she was interviewed in. She also remembers being asked about her involvement in organizations, and warns others who aim for citizenship of protesting in the current BLM movement.
“It’s definitely unfair that people who are lawful residents, let alone undocumented, are in such fear of expressing the rights that are given to them,” Kim said.
What rights do non-citizen protesters have?
Damjan DeNoble, founder and managing partner of fronteraTECH Law, said legally, there is nothing stopping students from attending a peaceful protest, as long as they do not destroy property or engage in any physical or verbal altercations.
However, he acknowledged that peaceful protesters can be arrested in different police operations, such as when they rush a crowd and arrest protesters for rioting. Even then, he said a non-immigrant student visa holder has a chance to defend their case.
“(The prosecutors) would have to produce some pretty hefty evidence you were rioting. Even if they were suspectful, depending on the statute,” DeNoble said. “It’s very difficult for a visa to be taken away.”
DeNoble, who has done legal work for the past four years in detention centers across the U.S., including in North Carolina, said he’s been warning about militarized police abuse spreading to the heartland of the country.
“Police themselves have drifted away from the majority of Americans on conceptual and societal issues,” DeNoble said. “They’re giving shelter to white shooters and beating up, bloodying, knocking out the eyes of everybody else. If I am thinking about what's gonna happen for an immigrant to get arrested, yes, I don’t think their treatment will be from an objective, professional police officer.”
For those who are undocumented or DACA recipients, he said their rights are basically nonexistent.
“Truth is, if you’re undocumented and you’re arrested in North Carolina today, unless you’re arrested in an immigrant-friendly district, you’re in high risk of being handed over to ICE,” DeNoble said.
Arrests have always been a reason for disqualification and deportation. But Eliazar Posada, the community engagement and advocacy department director for El Centro Hispano, said he is telling members of his community to be especially cautious of their social media posts.
These posts, even from other family members, can endanger their eligibility. And with vulnerable programs like DACA, one slip-up can cause an application to be denied.
“Anything related to condoning or promoting any kind of violent action or may be perceived as violent,” Posada said. “If you’re saying, ‘Should I do this?’ Then don’t.”
Posada has been protesting for a long time. He’s led marches on DACA. He protested HB2, the Charlotte "bathroom bill," and HB370, which required North Carolina sheriffs to cooperate with ICE and assist with deportations. But until now, he’s never seen protesters get tear-gassed or arrested.
“Not a week before, people who wanted to reopen the state were carrying AK-47s,” Posada said. “I imagined they were going to get shut down real quick. Instead the police shut down roads so they could march.”
During the pandemic, fears about status insecurity are heightened. Kinoti said she is not afraid to be deported to Kenya, but since flights are closed, she is afraid of being sent to a detention center. Still, she plans on attending future protests in Chapel Hill.
Kinoti said there is often a disconnect between African international students and African Americans. She said when she first arrived, there was an underlying desire to separate herself from this culture and avoid the discrimination African Americans faced.
“Racism isn’t a logical thing,” Kinoti said. “It’s just pure prejudice. At first glance, I just look like an American if I'm not speaking to them.”
Kinoti is in numerous group chats with different international students, all of whom are wary of the potential consequences of protesting. The chats are awash with questions.
Who do I call if I get arrested?
Do I have the right to an attorney?
How can I still participate?
Posada said there are many ways students can support the BLM movement without jeopardizing their or their family’s status. He suggests communication with elected officials in an appropriate manner and working with nonprofits. For Latinx youth especially, he said, they can educate their peers and community members.
“Do everything, just don’t get arrested,” Posada said.
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