Adonis Flores, 28, is an immigrants rights organizer with Michigan United and a resident of Detroit. He said generations of his relatives found work in America under the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers to come to America to help alleviate the labor shortage that occurred during World War II. Flores was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and was brought illegally to Detroit when he was nine. He supported the Dream Act, a bill that failed in the Senate in 2010. It would have granted undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children the chance to become citizens if they attended college or joined the military. After the bill failed, President Obama signed an executive order that gave people like Flores a temporary work permit that allows them to remain in the U.S., though a recent Supreme Court stalemate may put that status in question.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad?
Flores: Generally bad. I come from a very organizer-oriented definition of racism. I believe that there’s structural racism and it is composed of three types of racism: personal racism, institutional and cultural racism. Overall, institutional racism and cultural racism are very prevalent. People let personal prejudices take over when making day-to-day decisions. We all do it. People do it unconsciously.
Flores: The school to prison pipeline. It’s very, very obvious in schools where there are people of color whether Latinos or African Americans.
And in the immigration system, immigrants from countries that are usually populated by people of color tend to have a very difficult process to immigrate legally to the U.S. In Mexico, it takes 20 years. In countries in Europe people can get a visa to come to the U.S. in weeks or months or sometimes they don’t need even need a visa they can come on a European passport. That’s institutional racism. The Immigration and Naturalization Act put a limit on the numbers of persons admitted from each country. European countries had high limits, Latin American and African countries had very low limits.
Give me an example of cultural racism.
Flores: When people have prejudices against an entire culture. For example, I was knocking doors when I first started working with Michigan United. I came across an undocumented immigrant who was really upset about Immigration and targeting the Latino community for deportations. One of the comments he said was, “I don’t know why they are coming after us. We are just here working hard. They should go after the Arabs because they are the real terrorists.” I don’t think the person disliked all Muslims, but I think (American) culture overall is creating this picture, this message that Muslim Americans are terrorists.
In order to improve race relations, is it more important to focus on what different racial and ethnic groups have in common or what is unique about each?
Flores: I think it’s more important to focus on what we have in common. Low-income white Americans and low-income African Americans and low-income Latinos, most of the populations in these groups are blue-collar workers who are being exploited by multinational corporations. And instead of uniting our efforts for better working conditions, better wages, we’re falling into the politics where we focus on our differences. That tends to create a fear between us and fear of each other. Divide and conquer.
Have you experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of your race or ethnicity?
Flores: Yes, definitely. The most obvious was when I was applying to college back in 2006. I was a 4.0 GPA student, honor roll, lots of community service, dual enrollment at Wayne County Community College and a really good resume. I was accepted to all the universities I applied to, U of M in Ann Arbor, Michigan State, Wayne State. However, when it came to the interview with the admissions counselors, I didn’t have a social security number and my application didn’t have one (because he had entered the U.S. illegally). I was honest, I told them, “I am an undocumented immigrant. Can I still attend your institution?”
What was the response?
Flores: Their answer was, “You have to be admitted as an international student and pay three times a much.” That was pretty much a nice way of saying, “No.” It was institutional racism. If you are not a white American it is more difficult to get accepted.
In this instance, the excuse was my immigration status even though I’d been living here all my life, working, paying taxes and my great grandfather used to work here as a bracero (guest worker). We had a long, long heritage of living in the U.S. and working here and paying taxes in the U.S. I did not qualify. The laws make it extremely difficult for me to get documented. This was explicit, it wasn’t hidden. When I hear comments like, “We are a country of laws,” what I am hearing is a hidden message of, “A country of laws for white people that excludes people of color.”
Does the country need to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites and, if so, are you skeptical that such changes will occur?
Flores: Definitely, changes need to happen to allow people of color to actually have the same rights as whites. I don’t think these changes are going to happen soon. This is a generational commitment. Slavery was abolished in the 1860s. The Civil Rights Act was not signed until the 1960s. It’s been over 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and there’s still lots of disparities and discrimination. I’m skeptical change will happen for multiple generations.
Can what happened in Baton Rouge -- police killing someone, and then a shooter killing police -- happen here?
Flores: I think it can happen anywhere. There’s always going to be a loose radical. It’s completely valid to be angry about people dying. If you’re not, you’re not human. The challenge is, how you deal with that? Do you seek structural change that will prevent further people from dying?
Do you see dialogue happening that will bring about change?
Flores: I see honest dialogue coming from one side. Black Lives Matter is saying this (police killings) is a racism problem. The police say it’s a training problem or lack of education in the community problem. It’s the same with immigration. Latinos say (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) is ripping families apart. They say, “We’re a country of laws.” That’s not being honest.
Are Latinos being unfairly left out of the growing conversation about how Detroit today compares with Detroit in 1967 when the riots happened?
Flores: No, the Latino population was not nearly as large then as it is now.