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César García Hernández on Not Being Your Own Obstacle

TEDxMileHigh Imagine speaker César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández  is a law professor at the University of Denver and the author of two books: Crimmigration Law and Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants.

As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

My father was a reader, so I became a reader. For a while, immersed in the power of words, I wanted to be a librarian because literature lets people imagine new possibilities. I became a lawyer, and not a librarian, to engage with the pressing debates of the day. I’m not a librarian, but I’m still immersed in the power of words. Lawyers are wordsmiths. We think about language, debate writing, and traipse around the margins of what’s possible.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

I was born and raised in a family with little money and few experiences outside the poor community in which we lived. When I was a child, my family lived in public housing in McAllen, Texas, an overwhelmingly Mexican border community. Like the parents of most children around me, my parents didn’t have a college education. My mother finished the third grade in her small town in central Mexico. My father finished high school in the United States. 

Resources were limited, but dreams weren’t. My parents emphasized the importance of education above all else and my four siblings and I took that lesson to heart.

By the time I was in high school, there was no question that I would go to college. All that was unknown was where. I chose Brown University as much as it chose me. Stepping onto an Ivy League college was like nothing I had ever imagined. It was a world of immense privilege, but also one where intellectual exploration was highly prized. Soaking up all that this world had to offer was life changing.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  • I recently lived in Slovenia
  • I have a library. It has a ladder that goes around the room
  • I learned to ski and rock climb in the last five years

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  • Eduardo Galeano, because his writing is breathtaking and his intellect pierces through layers of historical noise to connect past struggles to present-day realities
  • Billie Holiday, because her rendition of “Strange Fruit” forces me to stop, remember the worst moments in our nation’s history, and contemplate the impressiveness of Holiday’s strength when singing this banner for a new, racially just social order during the height of Jim Crow
  • Ralph Nader, because he is deeply committed to his convictions

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

In 2013, critical race theorist and legal scholar Ian Haney López delivered a TEDx talk in Oregon. His topic was on dog-whistle politics, a concept he had developed to explain racism’s persistent, evolving role in political debates in the United States.

I enjoy this talk immensely because Haney López conveys an astonishingly complex phenomenon about a sensitive topic with clarity and grace. Through explanations and examples, he describes dog-whistle politics in a way that is accessible. Moreover, he does so without sacrificing the essence of the concept that he had previously articulated in much more depth in a book and multiple academic articles. As an academic, planning to discuss some of my academic work in the TEDx presentation, I aspire to do the same. 

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

Make someone else tell you “no.” Don’t be your own obstacle.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

For anyone engaged in immigration work, the eight years under President Obama were a marathon. So far, every day under President Trump has been a sprint. 

Keeping up with the latest developments in immigration law and policy sometimes feels like trying to clean up rapids with a mop. 

But as a teacher and scholar of migration, it is important to stay attuned to what is happening in courtrooms, legislatures, and on the ground. Despite the best effort, doing so fully has been impossible at times. I think it’s vital not to pretend to be able to be on top of everything. Instead, the Trump era calls for an increased measure of humility. It has become substantially more important to know and acknowledge what I am not able to follow.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

We don’t sufficiently consider how history affects the present-day. Nothing stays in the past. We need to encourage critical examination of the United States’ influence on the making of the modern world, including the economic and military exploitation of much of Latin America.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

To inject abolition into conversations about immigration law and policy. I want to expand the conversation about immigration law and policy to include the possibility of departing radically from how we are going about things now.  

What Action Can the TEDxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea? 

There is a lot available to listeners who, like me, find it problematic that the United States locks up roughly half a million people every year for violating immigration law. Here are some suggestions locally and nationally:

  1. Volunteer with Casa de Paz, an NGO based in Aurora that houses people released from the nearby Detention Contract Detention Facility, a facility that detains migrants on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency
  2. Members of religious communities could encourage their churches, mosques, synagogues, or other places of worship to offer sanctuary to migrants facing the possibility of detention and forcible removal from the United States
  3. Organize a court-watch initiative to monitor what is happening at the Denver immigration court in downtown Denver
  4. Speakers of foreign languages could volunteer as translators or interpreters with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the largest provider of immigration legal services to immigration prisoners in Colorado
  5. Similarly, lawyers could volunteer their legal services with RMIAN
  6. Make a financial contribution to the Detention Watch Network, an organization that advocates for the abolition of immigration detention, or the Texas Civil Rights Project, the organization that first alerted the world to the Trump administration’s family separation practice in the summer of 2018
  7. Join the American Friends Service Committee and others who regularly hold vigils and protests outside the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora
  8. People who own mutual funds or other diversified investments can research their holdings to determine whether they own stock in a private prison corporation. If so, reconsider
  9. Students can research whether their colleges or universities are invested in private prison corporations

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