KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Borders, Barriers, and Bridging the Black-Brown Divide with Pastor Milly Aquije and Gabrielle Apollon

Borders, Barriers, and Bridging the Black-Brown Divide with Pastor Milly Aquije and Gabrielle Apollon

Season 1, Episode 8
A square image. It is a somewhat abstract Illustration in warm, bright colors of a blue and white landscape with flecks of orange. The landscape itself is undulating in about 4 waves descending from the top right to bottom left corners of the image. The sun is partially visible on the top left and the sky is blue. White, cursive lettering spells out “Shake the Dust” across the ground.

This week, Sy and Suzie talk to Milly Aquije, an undocumented pastor and immigration activist, and Gabrielle Apollon, a human rights lawyer who grew up undocumented (and also at some point after that married Sy). We speak to them about growing up in the US as immigrants; the many immigration advocates, including Milly, who choose to disclose their undocumented status publicly; Gabrielle’s recent article on racism in both the immigration system and the immigrant rights movement; solidarity between Black and brown communities; and a lot more. 

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Find transcripts of this show, sign up for our free mailing list, and subscribe to our blog at KTFPress.com


Jonathan Walton – follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

Suzie Lahoud – follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.  

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.  

Shake the Dust is produced and edited by Sy Hoekstra, and transcribed by Suzie Lahoud with help from Descript

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


Gabrielle Apollon: I mean, I think that the main thing that keeps me going, I think, spiritually is one, knowing that like my interest or passion from these things actually comes from the Lord, right? Like that God is actually the one who is the God of the foreigner and of the fatherless and of the oppressed. And seeing that, you know, seeing him be that in my life, but also seeing and getting a sense of his heart, like that God cares about all of these issues and these people way more than I ever can. And that he is at work, even over the last few years and how challenging that was, God is still at work. And I really appreciated Milly's reminder that he is sovereign and above all of these systems and is still working even in the brokenness.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Suzie Lahoud: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. I'm Suzie Lahoud here with Jonathan Walton and Sy Hoekstra.

Sy Hoekstra: Today, we have an interview with Milly Aquije and Gabrielle Apollon. Milly is an educator, a spiritual advisor, a mentor, and a Dreamer. She serves as a pastor at the church Reconcile Brooklyn, and is the founder of a ministry called Hoping Greatly where she focuses on uplifting others by telling her story of being an undocumented immigrant. She holds degrees from Nyack College and Hunter College, as well as a certificate from the City Seminary.

Now Gabrielle works at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law, where she is a director on the Project for Human Rights in Haiti's Emerging Mining Sector, and a supervisor on the Project for Torture, Rendition, and Detention. She previously served as managing attorney at The Door, a center for alternatives where she represented undocumented young people in immigration and family law matters. She got her JD at NYU Law, and she also has both a bachelor's and a master's of international affairs from Columbia University. And in addition to all those things, Gabrielle is also my wife.

So Jonathan, just because of a scheduling conflict couldn’t make this interview, but Suzie and I talked to Milly and Gabrielle about their experiences growing up undocumented in the United States, the decisions of many immigration advocates- including Milly- who choose to disclose their immigration status publicly while they are still undocumented, Gabrielle's recent article on the racist origins of the immigration system, solidarity between Black and brown communities, and a lot more. And, of course, we have a link to Gabrielle's article in the show notes if you want to read that and get more of a context for what we're talking about.

One last thing, and then I will be quiet. There was a little bit of a problem with Milly's mic on this episode. She was a little bit quiet and there were some kind of strange noises that the mic was making at a couple of points, but it's still completely listenable and this is just such a great conversation we obviously, we wanted you all to hear it. We know what the problem is. It's not going to happen again. I just wanted to flag that for all of you. Thanks!

Jonathan Walton: Thank you all so much for tuning into the podcast today. The best way to support the show is to go to KTFPress.com and subscribe. That gets you our weekly newsletter on resources to help you leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, bonus episodes of this show, and writing from the three of us. It also supports other projects like future books that we're working on.

If you aren't in a position to sign up, make sure you hit subscribe or follow on your podcast player. Follow us @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And please do tell your friends about us.

We'd love to hear from you, so take a moment to send an email to shakethedust@ktfpress.com with any questions you might have, comments on the show, or even a voice memo with a question you might have for us. And you may show up on a future episode.

Suzie Lahoud: Now that that's out of the way, let's get to it. Here's our interview with Milly and Gabrielle…

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Milly and Gabrielle- welcome to Shake the Dust! Thank you so much for being with us today.

Gabrielle Apollon: Thanks for having us!

Sy Hoekstra: So we have, we don't have Jonathan, but we still have a bit of a full house here. But let me, let's just get us started by introducing the two of you and your stories a little bit to the listeners. Could you just give us a brief kind of summary of what it was like for the two of you growing up undocumented in the US? And let's start with Milly since you've already written about this for KTF Press in the article that you had in our anthology.

Milly Aquije: I would say, it was tough. It was tough. I didn't even know I was undocumented.

Sy Hoekstra: Until when?

Milly Aquije: Until the moment that I went to high school and I was applying for college, you know, in New York. So I'll never forget, you know, going all nice and dandy to my guidance counselor. I was definitely that, you know, student always trying to make sure I had every credit, everything there, submitting my application for CUNY, and there she's like, “Hey, so you're missing your social security number. Do you have it?” And I was like, “I don't know, but I'm going to ask my mom.” So I went to my mom and that's where she sat me down. She was like, “So, about that...” you know? And that's where I knew my story of yes, that I was different.

Did not know exactly what that meant, right, for college and stuff. And then, yeah, from there on was, I would say, the beginning of a journey for me to assimilate that I was undocumented, but then to know what does that look like to actually provide for everything, all my schooling, from scratch, you know?

So yeah, that was the moment in that high school office with my guidance counselor.

Sy Hoekstra: How did you then get through college to where you are today? Cause you, I mean, you went to college. So what happened?

Milly Aquije: When it came to applications, I was encouraged to still apply to college. Cause that's one thing I was thinking about, not because of knowing this is going to be different for me. I'm not sure how that's going to go, but thankfully, I had the support of my faith community and also, you know, my family. Of course, they're always pro-, as a first-generation Latina, that I am, you are pro-education. So I, yeah, I had to take, you know, basically out of the books jobs, you know, babysitting, tutoring, you name it. Sometimes I had to take two or three jobs at a time and a semester in order to provide for my tuition for my books and had to just provide for everything for me.

And I really have to say, I think my greatest moment was coming across campus ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where I met other college-aged students and had a wonderful, wonderful staff worker who just believed in me and loved on me. And she's the first one outside of my community- Latin American community, Pentecostal church, and my family- that I was able to release my news. And she always believed in my leadership and was just so avid in like, “Milly, you should go to this conference,” and it was over, like, not in New York. And for me that was a trouble because I had no documents. I can't travel via plane. And that's where I remember releasing my story with so much shame and guilt, because I didn't want her to look at me differently.

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you very much for sharing that. Gabrielle, can you give us, give us a little bit of your story?

Gabrielle Apollon: Sure. And I was actually, Milly, after reading your essay, I thought that, you know, we would have like quite different stories in terms of this, but actually, I think a lot of what you said really resonated. So I became- I was going to say I became undocumented- but I didn't really fully understand this either until later on because my family is from Canada and originally from Haiti. I grew up in Kansas City. There were not that many other immigrants around when I grew up, or where I grew up, in Olathe and Overland Park, specifically. But we actually kind of went in and out of status, which I think, is not something people usually think about when they think of people who are undocumented. It actually can be quite fluid sometimes. And so for me, I didn't necessarily understand what our statuses were for the majority of my childhood in Kansas City. And again, similar to Milly, it wasn't until I, you know, when push came to shove, when I had to figure out how to get into college and specifically, who was going to pay for college, that it really hit home.

And before that, I would say, you know, looking back, I think that the biggest impact that being undocumented had for my family was poverty. As a result of that, when I was applying for college, I knew very clearly that unless I got a full ride, I wasn't going to be able to go because there were, there were no resources. I mean, it was hard enough to like find money for rent the next month, let alone college fees. And so that really shaped, you know, it becoming very, very real, very quickly. Thankfully, I ended up by, truly by the grace of God, and I think this is one of those times where I really, one of the first times I saw God really provide so powerfully in my life, was I got a full ride scholarship, which was really the only way I was going to go to school.

But the other thing that resonated with me that you shared Milly, and the other ways that I saw God provide was in the, in the lack of financial resources, our church family really just pulled us through. And there were various church families, but really those were the people who were giving us rides to school, and helping us cover rent, and bringing groceries when we needed them and stuff. And then I saw the community and, you know, God's like financial and miraculous provision.

Suzie Lahoud: Hmm. Yeah, thank you both so much for sharing, and we're looking forward to digging more into your experiences and your stories. And Milly, going back to you specifically, could you tell us what went into the process of deciding to publicly disclose your undocumented status? And I'll be honest, the three of us editors, when you contributed to our anthology, we were kind of shocked and surprised that you were willing to publish, you know, this beautiful essay about your experience of being undocumented and your experience with the church and to put your full name on it. We assumed that you would do that anonymously. And I know that your willingness to publicly disclose that information has also been a huge part of your advocacy. So yeah, if you could just share about that process and that decision.

Milly Aquije: It was, I would say it was gradual from the moment that I just mentioned previously in our last question of me coming out of the shadows to my staff worker of InterVarsity of Hunter College and letting her know, and just seeing her love for me and how she prayed and cried with me of the injustice that I had had all my life since my mom, the way my mom brought me here.

Unfortunately, my parents were low resourced in Peru, so that's where I'm from. And actually, around this time, they were so traumatized from what was happening that they actually were in a certain time period in Peru called la senda luminosa, which basically was a time period where they were kidnapping children. But then also my father- he was a great construction worker, he had his own company- around the same time, he actually was robbed. So for him, to see the future was outside of Peru, and for the safety of his family. So he went forth first and then came my mom.

But in this time, you know, we weren't resourced at all. So she tried as much to get a lump sum of money in order to find a trusted coyote. That's what it's called- the person who crosses someone. And yeah, and she, with me in hands- I was three years-old when we crossed; I actually made my birthdate; so I crossed in my birthdate, cause I'm an August baby and stuff. But long story short, my mom made this decision, you know, and it was very risky. Absolutely, now knowing the stories that I hear from other fellow undocumented friends that I've had as well.

And I think when we started hearing as a family about the discrimination and racism, especially with Trump coming to power and hearing his campaign, I would say that's where we had a conversation. I had a conversation with my parents like, “This isn't right. What should we do about it? What are your thoughts?” And they were spent because unfortunately they have tried to renew, their, as well, like adjuster status. And they did it back in 2001. But unfortunately, later on, we found out that it was through a fraudulent agency. It was reported a few years ago. So they’ve gone through a lot when it comes to that. So they were spent already around this time a few years ago, and they were like, “You know what?” They, pretty much, they were like, “We're so done with this system. If you choose to go ahead and share your story, we're okay with it.”

And they gave me that blessing, but without their blessing to actually be out of the shadows, I would not have come out with my story. And also, I think, also them seeing the support of our faith community, my mentors, just, and also friends that are as well, advocates and allies of immigrants. They saw that strength from carrying me over from undergrad to grad school, where I had to, as well, grieve an unmet expectation for grad school around, I know, I would think it was 2014 or so because the laws of course weren't permitting for me to apply for a certain program, because that would mean that I would need a licensure with that type of program. And I can't because I'm not a US citizen or resident.

So it's things like this that I think my family saw God’s favor and also God's provision for our family, absolutely in everything, that they were open for me to start telling my story. And it was great because I remember I also had my moment, my, I would say my complete poignant out of the shadows moment when I wanted to, as well, give up from ministry, give up from seminary in one semester, because it was just so much of like, I was working, I was, I think as well, doing my field work for seminary and taking the seminary course. I remember, because that was my next, I was an urban ministry major, and I'll never forget this class because there is where I was taught about the God who sees, who hears those in the margins. And I never heard that in my life. I heard it, maybe certain things, but this person just went completely dived into scripture and seeing how there's so many people that have been in the margins, mentioning the story of Esther, how she had to be in the shadows with her identity, but then revealed it for the people. And so for me, that's where I was like, reading this book too, Liberty to the Captives by Reverend Dr. Raymond Rivera, I cried my eyes out cause I knew exactly what God was calling me to do, which was to tell my story, stop hiding my light underneath and put it back on the hill.

So from there forward, you know, with the counsel of my mentor, Maritza Crespo- love her. She's been with me for years, her and Orlando. I really believe I am their honorary daughter for sure these past few years. And if you knew anything about the Crespos, they’re absolutely high supporters of immigrants and just the Latino community as well. And it gave me strength and gave me courage to continue forward in knowing that even if Trump was elected, which we know he was, right, I could still continue forward with just wonderful mentors like them.

And so many others that have come like Jonathan Walton too, you know, when I was grieving, you know, from Trump presidency, Trump being elected, what does that mean for me? So I think, knowing the strength of allies and just people who love me and know my story gave me the courage to continue standing, but also seeing the hurt on campus.

So when Trump got elected, I'll never forget this moment because I was working in administrative role in Hunter College and started seeing in our Facebook group one of our young girls just came out of the shadows and saying, “How do I bridge my faith as a DACA recipient and knowing that people who say yes to Jesus are saying that I should get out of this country? I don't know how to bridge my faith with, you know, with this, everything going on now.” And it was nice, I saw other students saying, you know, encouraging her, praying for her. But I knew that that was it. That was the kick I needed. And I was like, “I know exactly how you feel.” And there is where probably, in a Facebook group, I came out of with my story and it's been ever since. And I've seen the more I say the story it's been helpful for me too. It's been a great healing process of knowing that I'm being enabled to bridge both, you know, my story of being in the margins, but also bridging the hurt and the fear that unfortunately were in the rhetorics with Trump of the discrimination and racism of Christians.

So it's been awesome to do that as well in certain spaces with the undocumented community, or I would say, the DACAmented community too for me as a DACA recipient, when they're like, “Oh my gosh, are all of them racist? Are all of them this?” And then I’m like, “Hi,” you know, “my name is this, and guess what? I am a pastor. And I’m a DACA recipient. Like how in the heck did that happen?” So it's been so amazing being part of those spaces, especially in the last presidential election where we were all grieving together, and like of when is that decision going to come? How is it going to happen?

But then I'll never forget many DACA recipients talking about their churches that were absolutely filled with immigrants. And yet their faith leaders were absolutely advocating for Trump. And then trying to just go through that, and me just speaking to them and saying, “I'm so sorry. Not all of them are like that. Guess what? I'm a pastor. I'm doing this. I'm here with you.” And so many were like, so sweet and just like saying, “How? Like can you tell us more?” And it's been awesome to kind of be that person and like saying, “Yeah, you can bridge both. It's not an anomaly.” But I always have to start apologizing all the time when it comes to outside of faith networks, because people are afraid of Christians.

Sy Hoekstra: What you just gave us was a lot of the reasons that you, you know, your motivations and the power of your community, and the ways that you were thinking about this as a minister. You didn't exactly talk about what a big risk it was for you. Like it, which was, you know, I think part of the decision for anybody who's, you know, there are lots of advocates who have made the same decision that you have to be very public and like to tell people, you know, as the movement says all the time, “You're not alone,” but it's a seriously enormous risk to yourself. And I don't know if you have anything to say about that, but I just wanted to point that out to the listeners, like, this is not a safe decision.

Milly Aquije: Yeah, I think for me, it's just knowing God's Providence. I, it really is knowing God's protection and oversight regardless of the risk. And also me being comfortable with uncomfortability and the school of uncertainty.

And the reason I say this is all my life has been uncertain and I never knew it until that moment in the guidance counselor in high school. So I have seen God's amazing ways that he's come through for me. So taking this risk, yes, was it like fear-filled in the beginning? Absolutely. I feel like I started telling my story afraid, but I definitely have to say that the, I see God's just hand and protection all the time. Like, and I have been talking about it a lot lately with other colleagues and just talking with other advocates too who are also in the same, you know, status as I am, who are DACA recipients. And we all are in agreement in saying like, we'd rather take this risk and even, you know, be subjected to deportation versus not talking about it at all and people thinking they're alone in this journey; they're alone in their uncertainty, in their fear, in just the rhetorics they hear.

And I have to say, the more risk I've taken, the more I've seen God's hand with me. And what gives me hope too, is also where God has me. Like I ran away from what I'm doing, right, as a minister and a licensed clergy. But once I said yes, I have to say that just so many things have lined up in my favor that it's just, it really has been God sent. And also knowing that under the Evangelical Covenant Church, as a licensed clergy with them, they're high advocates as well for justice and women in leadership has given me as well, I would say, the strength to continue speaking as well, my story, knowing that if the worst case scenario happens, I know regardless in this organization, I will definitely find a way to continue doing the work that I believe God has called me for as a minister, but then also of being that bridge for faith and justice in my story, no matter where I go.

So that's one thing too that I've learned too, even though yes, the system gives me the limits, the fear tactics, right, of being like a bird in a cage or an expansive cage, a little bit, with DACA. It's also knowing who am I like listening to higher than these systems and these principalities of the world? And that's where I've been my aim for, with my grounding with God. And I have seen that, yes, he is absolutely beyond these cages, beyond these principalities, and beyond the risk.

And I also know my rights. So that's one thing too, that I've loved in having this very grassroots way of immigration activism through knowing other DACA recipients and undocumented is the advocacy, but then also their encouragement, especially by one dear friend, just an encouragement of them always saying, “Know your own rights too. Not only the rights that you're limited here in America, but know your rights too according to your citizenship in your country.”

So that's one thing that's been also given me a lot of strength because as a Peruvian citizen, I actually have more rights and liberties and able to travel abroad without a visa for certain European countries, that has been new, a new integration of the Peruvian president with the European Union just a few years ago.

And man, I'm like, why am I feeling so limited in this country, right? And stuff. And so this is also what gives me the courage is knowing for myself and knowing that there's more beyond America as well for me.

Gabrielle Apollon: Yeah, I mean, Milly, I think what you shared about kind of the power in your vulnerability and coming out of the shadows, I think, is mirrored actually in the broader immigration advocacy space, because I think the, what we've seen happen over the last, you know, 10, maybe 15 years, around DACA, and the realization that young people who, you know, similar near situation, who have had no, who had no choice in the matter, should get, you know, rights, shockingly, in this country and get some relief from deportation- that actually all came about from DACA recipients themselves deciding to come out, even against the advice of their immigration lawyers, like I used to be, and everyone who knew the risks that that could have. But actually almost all of the policy movement came from young people coming out and saying like, “No, this is what we want. This is what we should have.” And, I don't know, I'm just struck by that. That that has, that is, it's not just an individual story. It's actually part of the movement. And I think that that's so important. And I recognize, I feel like I need to also recognize that, you know, for me, as a formerly undocumented person, it is a bit safer for me to talk about this history and stuff. But there are so many people like you who have said, you know, regardless of what's happening, kind of, on the policy or the legal front, I'm going to share my story. I'm going to share, you know, what I deserve and advocate for that. And I just think that's so important.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, and thank you so much for making that connection, Gabrielle, and thank you again, Milly, for sharing. I’m just so struck by, as Sy pointed out, the courage that went into that decision, and then also the care in the sense that it was very much a communal decision. You know, the fact that it impacted your immediate community- your family, and you sort of needed to seek their blessing and their consent. And I appreciate that so much. And then the fact that you sort of made this decision for your community, the broader community that you're in. And so it was really sort of sacrificial in that sense.

And going back to your essay in our anthology, Keeping the Faith, Milly- you talk about the anti-Blackness that sometimes manifests in the immigration rights movement itself, and Gabrielle, if we could just pivot back to you: could you explain a little bit about what that looks like and what people can do to help the movement do better?

Gabrielle Apollon: Well, I think that as an immigration lawyer, I was practicing for about five years prior to my current role. You know, as I mentioned before, I'm Haitian Canadian, and due to my language experience, due to my interests, a lot of my clients were either Haitian or French speaking from West Africa.

And, you know, that was, what I discovered was, it's relatively rare, even in a city like New York, which is super diverse. And as I, you know, kept trying to advocate for my clients, kept trying to advocate for language access and highlighting kind of the challenges that Black immigrants had, I often felt like a broken record. I often was like, “How am I the only one mentioning French and like, the need for things to be translated in French and Kreyol? Or how is this just what I do in every meeting and I look around and very few other people are doing it?” And so I started to, you know, maybe be a little self-conscious like, “Oh, I guess I'm going to make this comment again. I guess I'm gonna say this repeatedly.” And I was like, “Maybe I'm just overthinking this. Like maybe I'm being a little too extra.”

And then last summer hit. And more people started talking about racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. And what I discovered, and that was the first time, in like almost all of the immigration advocacy and legal services spaces that I was in, where we started, I started hearing people talk about Black immigrants and I was like, “Huh. So this is actually, it wasn't just in my head.” Right? Like people were realizing and thinking about it and therefore proactively starting- and I emphasize the word starting- to think about how their programs and how their advocacy may be overlooking or erasing certain immigrants.

And I think that if I was to probably try to summarize, it would be there's an erasure and an overlooking of Black immigrants within the mainstream narratives of immigration and what it means to be an immigrant. I think most of the time we often only think about Latino immigrants. We often only think about Spanish as a language of immigrants or of immigration. And that's just very much not the case, right. Especially in a city like New York, but across the nation.

And so, you know, there are obviously very real problems within our whole immigration system. You know, Black immigrants, just like in the criminal justice system, are often the ones that feel the full weight of the criminalization and the draconian policies that our immigration system has. However, that story is often not told. And so I think that the immigrant narratives that, not just in the immigration system, but within the movement themselves, I think we have to be honest about the fact that anti-Blackness is actually not just an American thing. Unfortunately, it is a global phenomenon and there's lots of anti-Blackness in Latin America, and, you know, across the world. And that bias, whether implicit or not, does come with people, you know, it does cross borders. And so, unfortunately, I think that that bias is within our movements of advocates. It's within our movements of activists as well.

And I think unless we address it head on and, you know, and there are some organizations that have been created to address this issue, like UndocuBlack, BAJI- Black Alliance for Just Immigration. I think we need those organizations to, Haitian Bridge Alliance, to bring these things to the forefront but most importantly, we also need the main organizations with most of the resources to really kind of reflect and look inward and think, how are we perpetuating these anti-Black, anti-Black rhetoric, anti-Black narratives as well?

I will say that, you know, that translates into resources, right? Because if people aren't thinking about Black immigrants, then they're not thinking about hiring people who speak the languages that Black immigrants often speak, whether it be, you know, French or Kreyol or other languages that people speak in Africa. That's one thing, but then you also have like funders, right. Are funders looking at the types of immigration relief that a lot of Black immigrants, you know, need? You know, recently, Temporary Protected Status, which is a form of temporary immigration relief, was just granted for Haiti. And one of my big concerns is, you know, there are potentially about 150,000 Haitians who will be eligible to get this relief, but are they going to find the legal service providers to help them with those types of cases? I don't know. And I hope so, but I think that, you know, there need to be resources towards that whether private, public, et cetera.

Sy Hoekstra: So Gabrielle, you recently wrote an article that we will link to in the show notes about the anti-Blackness and specifically, the anti-Haitian prejudice that is sort of at the foundation of the current mass immigration detention system. Can you explain a little bit about that history?

Gabrielle Apollon: Sure. And I will say, and share a story, it's actually, unfortunately, the entire immigration system that, you know, is based on white supremacy, sadly. And that, you know, that could be a whole class in and of itself. I will say I did, I taught like a little seminar to eighth and ninth graders about immigration, and I was like, “Okay, what's like one thing I really want them to know?” And I guess that's what I decided on, that like actually the whole system, unfortunately, is founded on a pretty, pretty troubling and white supremacist foundation. And so I shared about, you know, the Chinese Exclusion Act and some of these first cases, immigration cases, that were all about, “How white are you?” and that will determine, you know, if you're considered white, then you can immigrate. If you're not, then, you know, sucks for you. And so I did this whole spiel. I like went through kind of the long, kind of, timeline of this. And then at the end- first off, I just love New York City kids because they will keep it real, all the time- this, one of the girls raised her hand. She was like, “So is your whole point that the whole system's racist?” Like, duh. Obviously, we know this. And I was like, “Ah, yes. Okay. New York City teenagers do not need to be reminded of the racism of the system.” And so that was a very good, humbling reminder of the reality of our city and this country.

But, I will say- just to speak to the immigration detention system- so the system that we know, you know, is very recent. So actually, having so many people in immigration detention, which is prison, right? It is the same facilities. Literally, the same buildings that function as jails are also the ones that we, for some reason, seem to also believe that people whose only crime is being an immigrant and trying to, you know, get a better life or lavi miyò [the better life], as we say in Kreyol, that that should be, should be treated horribly. And, you know, not to mention all of the problems that we already have in our criminal justice system, but that system is very, it's very new. And it was actually not until the seventies when Haitians were fleeing a brutal dictatorship, Haitians started coming en masse in, you know, some people have probably seen images of what they call boat people, people traveling in extremely dangerous boats that weren't meant for that, but because they were fleeing atrocities, right. But when they arrived on these shores, our, this nation's administration at the time was primarily focused on how do we stop this influx. And their, the way they decided to handle that was, “Let's make detention mandatory.”

So it used to be, usually, only in exceptional circumstances that we would detain immigrants or imprison them, and they actually made it the blanket kind of rule. And, for certain times, didn't even allow bond in an effort to quote, “deter,” deter more immigrants. And that's actually, that was the genesis of the system we have now.

Sy Hoekstra: I should just note: “bond” is the immigration system’s equivalent of “bail” in the criminal justice system.

Gabrielle Apollon: Exactly. And, you know, this is a time where there were, there were lots of Cuban refugees also fleeing, right. But they were actually, in most cases, not treated in the same way, not detained mandatorily. And then you have, in the nineties, where a lot of people don't know, prior to what Guantánamo is now, actually, Haitians were detained, intercepted in the shores, and detained on Guantánamo in 1990.

And so, for me, that's like a very, a visceral, just, reality of what we are willing to do to Black immigrants, that that actually continues on to this day. So to this day, Black immigrants spend more time in solitary confinement in immigration detention, while only 7% of non-citizens in the US are Black, Black immigrants represent 20% of people facing deportation on criminal grounds.

And there are a lot of other examples where, as I mentioned before, Black immigrants bear the brunt of the terrible ways that we treat, not just immigrants, but people, in the criminal justice system as well. So that's a little bit of the overview. There's so much more obviously.  

Sy Hoekstra: Just one thing I want to highlight from your article is the fact that at first they started applying this mandatory detention to Haitians only. And then when a lawsuit was brought, right, this is how it worked? When a lawsuit was brought, alleging that that was discrimination, the Reagan administration said, “Oh, okay. Well then we'll do it to everyone.” And like, that's how it started, right? It's like, “If we can't be discriminatory about this, then we're just going to do it to everybody.”

Gabrielle Apollon: Yup. And actually, so I just had a thought and Milly, I just appreciated, kind of what you shared that, that you highlighted, you know, in the short essay that you wrote, you thought it was important to highlight this Afro-Latino perspective. So I would love, if you don't mind- and I'm just going to ask a question- if you could share a little more about why you, why that was important to you to highlight. Cause unfortunately, I don't often hear that.

Milly Aquije: Yeah. One of the reasons it was very important for me to highlight that is because I have an Afro-Peruvian dad. So my dad is definitely mestizo colored, darker skinned. My mom is not. My mom, you can definitely, probably, think that she's European if anything, because she's very, very light-skinned and that's because my mom also, from her mom's side, her mom's, my grandmom, is Peruvian from her mom's side, but Italian from her dad's side.

So I have Italian roots to my mom, but then through my father, I have African roots, but also indigenous roots. So for me, it was very important for me to highlight that because I know what it was for me to be in a school system that was predominantly, my neighborhood was predominantly Polish, and I'll never forget being questioned when my father would pick me up of like, “Oh, are you sure this is your father?” And I was like, “Yeah, this is my father.” And over the years I did see certain things happen to my father that were a little bit unusual. I didn't know, as a kid, of course, that's racism, right. Because as well, my parents wanted me to assimilate the American system. And also, I would say my own, you know, white passingness as a Latino. He had, he mentioned to me, you know, that at times it was harder for him. You know, he had to always like, defend himself, or fight for his honor, or sometimes assimilate, you know, certain remarks of him as an immigrant, you know, of course getting like low paying jobs right, in construction, and being treated, or maltreated should I say, because, you know, he is being paid off the books.

And so hearing that from my father, and then also when I learned more about, as well, my African roots in Peruvian history and in our music and everything. I know that there are so many that don't even know our own history as Latin Americans where all of us, none of us are any sort of pure breed. All of us have a mixture of African roots because the African diaspora, all of it came to Latin America, Central America, South America, everything.

So we all have that. And I feel like there’s been an erasure complex as well in the Latin community of not identifying as our African roots. And to me, I'm absolutely in complete disagreement with that because we are denying a part of ourselves and our history. And that's literally in our roots, in our generations, in our ancestors. And if people want to be white-passing, to each his own, but I know for me and my family and where I've been upbringed, I am not going to stand for that.

So even when the rising of, of course, of protests from last year- Black Lives Matter- I actually had a very distinct opportunity that I didn’t even think I would even get, where I remember waiting for a few of our congregants, cause we were part of the Pray. March. Act. protest, peaceful protest as, you know, Christian clergy, and just, us, the Christian community, also having a peaceful protest saying Black Lives Matter. And I'll never forget, cause I was waiting for our congregants in a certain corner in Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, and a reporter from Telemundo came to me and asked me, “Hey, you know, are you Latina? Are you, can you speak Spanish?” I was like, “Yeah.” “Would you be okay in being interviewed and talking about this event?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So there, you know, by God's grace, I didn't even think that this would happen, they interviewed me quickly of why was I there? What was the purpose of the event? And what do I have to say to our community? And I was honest in saying like, “Hey, we need to also stand up for this too, because we are also affected from this. Black Lives Matter is for our lives too, because we also are Black.” I'm pretty sure they probably cut that part a little bit, to be honest. [Sy and Gabrielle laugh]

A lot of people started texting me after a certain hour because they aired it and my phone is like blowing up. And then my sister was like, “Oh my gosh, check your phone.” And I was like, “What happened?” And that's where many people were just like, shouting me out. Like “Milly, thank you so much for saying that,” and stuff like that. My parents too, they were like, “Oh my gosh. Like people from our church were telling us, ‘Your daughter’s famous.’” And I'm like, “That was like, probably like 30 seconds of my life, you know what I mean?” But I noticed that I have to speak up because no one else will, you know, and I was like, “Well, God, you gave me an opportunity. I've been speaking up for immigrant rights. Might as well speak up for my brothers and sisters who are also suffering every single day, just like I am,” you know?

And it's even worse, I would say, in a ways too, because like, you know, always be, I can't imagine that because I have my shadows moments as well, too. I’m not all the time am I always in courageous mode or anything like it, but I can't imagine always fearing for your life every single moment you're coming, you're driving, right. Or I'm just doing, you know, different, simple tasks because of the color of your skin. You know? So it's just things like this that I, I knew for me, it was a non, like, it was a no-brainer. I had to stand up for it.

Gabrielle Apollon: I so appreciate you sharing that because I think that the church has a lot of work to do on so many different fronts racially, right? Like there's obviously the, there's obviously challenges between Black and white church members. There are definitely things that we're grappling with on how we, how we treat and ignore, oftentimes, our Asian brothers and sisters. But I also think like, again, as a Haitian and knowing the history between Haiti and the D.R.- which is often where this comes up- there is a lot of healing to be done as to like, how do other people of color treat Black people, right. And like, you being honest and open and recognizing that, I mean, does healing, I think, is really encouraging for me because I do hope that that would be something that is also like more, you know, recognized and like shared and spoken about openly between, you know, brothers and sisters of color within the church as well.

Milly Aquije: Yeah. And I'm in agreement with you, Gabrielle. And the reason I'm saying this is, I'll never forget that day in June, Pray. March. Act., checking my phone, and one of my friends that I wanted to check in with her, cause I know this is very true to her heart, being African-American, and I told her, “Hey, you know, I just want to check in with you. How are you? Are you okay?” And just sharing this moment. And she was so honest with me and saying, “Thank you so much for being there. And thank you so much for speaking.” And there, she told me this, “I apologize, Milly, that I never was there for you, and your in as well in what you advocate for and what you stand for. And I want to learn more.”

Let me just say that for me, like it was such a great, like you said, healing moment for me, but then also a moment of like, “Oh gosh, like there's so much that, with that right. More conversation that needs to be done.” And I believe that, you know. And I think it starts with us, like with each other, you know, and just talking and just being honest in the inter-ethnic conflict we have with each other too, with, I'll be honest, it's just a hand-me-down of our generational biases and discrimination that we've been taught from our family of origins, of our parents.

So I think it's been such a healing experience for me as well from African-American community too, in knowing we always have had alliances, but sometimes we've just never spoken about it because of our own, I would say, unspoken differences, but yet very similarities that we have as just power people. And how do we embrace that for the next? I'm not sure, in a sense of like, advocacy mutually for each other in each other's causes and then also helping other communities who don't know or who are just standing up now, right, as well. So I think for me, I also am in agreement with you of us needing so much inter-ethnic healing between Black and brown communities to then go ahead and engage and help other communities too.

There's so much there. And I hope, that's one of the reasons why I love so much what I do as well in being on the ground in ministry with others and having these talks and knowing it's okay to be not okay, right. It's okay as well to have a mental health checkup, because I don't know what I would do without my therapist, to be honest with you, you know, for sure.

She knows all my stories. So it's, it's great. And I need that, right. But then also, yeah, it's okay for us to have these conflicts of talking with each other's communities because it's healthy.

Gabrielle Apollon: And I'm glad you mentioned that, and then, sorry- I will let the hosts do the rest of their work [laughs]- but I think that's so true that like, you're right. Like on the flip side, have Black Christians really been speaking up about immigration issues all the time? Like I think that that's a real, that's a real question. And UndocuBlack has, I have a sweatshirt, that they say, that says, “Immigration is a Black issue,” right? And it shouldn't just be because there are Black immigrants. You're right. It should be because, you know, our brothers and sisters are also impacted and in such dramatic ways, and that should shape us, that should shape our theology, that should shape what we care about. So thank you. And thank you for that call. Cause I think that's so important.

Milly Aquije: No, thank you, Gabrielle, for mentioning that as well, because I am with you. Absolutely. A hundred percent. And the reason I say this is, now I’ll discuss this, now I’ll let, as well, our hosts continue the conversation, which is, I'll never forget going to a celebration for DACA, but then also the José Peralta Law, with the CUNY group that one of my friends was part of, and she's a DACA recipient, but she's not Latina, she is definitely of Jamaican descent. And I'll never forget her invitation. And she was honest with me in saying, “I want you to come with me, and you'll see why, because I know you're part of like activism, but you’ll also understand what I mean.” And I did like, if it wasn't for me to translating certain things that mind you, they were celebrating and they still started celebrating in like, completely Spanish poetry at times, or saying certain Spanish things. I felt so bad for my friends.

And that is something that I believe we need to do better in immigration activism, in putting every single person's story there. If, yes, if you have, like someone that's doing pure Spanish poetry, you best believe you have someone translating that poetry

Gabrielle Apollon: Amen.

Milly Aquije: and then having others, you know, speak about it, you know. Like there's other, like you said, you know, African, Black, and everything, having others part of that line up, because immigration, we're so divided, but yet we have to be united because it's all of us. It's not just Latinos and speaking in Spanish of advocacy, it's our African brothers, its our Asian brothers, right. And so on and so forth. And I think for me, this was my first kind of, I would say, disheartening in seeing in activism. And I'm like, “Why are we doing this, if we're so better united?”

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. And I'll just say, you guys don't have to apologize for talking to each other. [Gabrielle laughs] This is an egalitarian space and I'm just,

Milly Aquije: Yes, I love it! [Milly laughs]

Suzie Lahoud: I’m just grateful to be privy to the richness of your conversation.

Sy Hoekstra: Right. Exactly. The two of us could just shut up and this would be a great show.

Suzie Lahoud: Absolutely. Absolutely. We'll just let you host yourselves next time. We'll just open the door and you come in. You can have our house.

Gabrielle Apollon: We’ll be guest, guest cohosts.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, that'll be great. Yeah.

So I guess, you both shared, in the beginning, when you talked about your stories, you shared some really beautiful experiences of how the church supported you both and your families, but also you've kind of touched on throughout the course of this interview- and I know you just shared a bit about this, just now, Gabrielle- about the work that the church still needs to do around these issues. And Milly, this is also something you touched on quite poignantly in your essay, in Keeping the Faith. And so, in reflecting on kind of some of the pain and rejection that you both have also experienced in your journeys with the church as you've been walking through this, could you both share a little bit about what keeps you going, both, you know, as believers who are actively involved in your church communities and in your advocacy, despite those difficult things?

Gabrielle Apollon: Sure. I think, so I guess that it's two-fold, I think. I mean, I think that the main thing that keeps me going, I think spiritually, is one, knowing that my interest or passion from these things like actually comes from the Lord, right. Like that God is actually the one who is the God of the foreigner and of the fatherless and of the oppressed. And seeing that, you know, seeing him be that in my life, but also seeing and getting a sense of his heart, whether it's through scripture, or just, you know, movements and having to remind myself, and Sy knows this all too well, like that God cares about all of these issues and these people way more than I ever can. And that he is at work even, you know, even over the last few years and how challenging that was, like, God is still at work.

And I really appreciated Milly's reminder that like, he is sovereign and above all of these systems and is still working even in the brokenness. And so I think for me, that is like, I actually have to keep that really close to not get completely disillusioned and despondent really.

But then I also think like I, you know, I can just say that, you know, I have a few texts chains of my friends who, whether it's like my Prayer and Sangria group, whether we're meeting virtually or in person, where we're just sharing and like lamenting and being angry together about the state of the world and about not even like only the broad things, but like I'm asking them to pray about my cases or pray about like the immigration or human rights policies that I'm, you know, engaged in with work.

And for me, that's, that brings a level of cohesion, right. Where it's not like, you know, just my church on Sundays and, you know, not thinking about the Bible through the lens of everything that's going on, but bringing those things together. Is that, I don't know, that's the only way I can do this, to be honest. And the fact that God suffers with us, right. Like that the cross means that those who were suffering are never alone. And, I don't know, that, for me, that's like, that's the foundation. But I'll let you go ahead, Milly.

Milly Aquije: Yeah, I think I'm with you too, Gabrielle. I have to say my faith, you know, and just seeing that God is the God who sees us all and he loves us. He absolutely loves and adores each one of us, both the oppressed and the oppressor. And the reason I'm saying this too is I have seen that there's so much hope in just listening into those at times, of course, when we have the strength and capacity and yes, complete agency to do so too, in listening to those that have these rhetorics.

And the reason I say this is I heard many stories at times from our congregants that they weren't exposed to people other than white until like later in their lives, maybe like the last year of high school or so. And that, to me, is a big thing. And the reason is, being here, a New York City kid pretty much all my life, I've been exposed to multicultural every time, every single time I step out of my door, right.

So it's just things like this that I'm like, wow, there’s so much power in vulnerability, and also dismantling the, I would say, the ignorance, right, and stuff of what it looks like for an immigrant to have an immigrant life and experience, or for them just to know that it's not as cookie cutter way that they hear in the media, right. The system of immigration is so complicated. No immigration case is actually the same. I'm not sure if I'm always called to those spaces all the time, for sure, of like what it looks like to “Let me tell you my story,” right, to here, dismantle your biases, your discrimination.

But one thing has been, as well, my strength has been community in where I have like really amazing best friends who are from just different communities, whether Latina, African-American, Asian. High advocates, you know, for just my story and just who I am as well. And also we're all single, so we’re also always, you know, grabbing a fun, singleness stories for sure too, over a great margarita find.

So it's been great to have that spaces just to be myself and have a safe space I can just weep and lament. I've also have found amazing friends in the undocumented community who are DACA recipients. There's a few I turn to whenever, you know, things, we hear things going wrong, but it's always a breath of fresh air just checking in with them. We have our own like, documented jokes and things like that too, because we know each other's experiences, right. So I think it's awesome to be in a place where I don't have to translate myself. I can just be.

And when it comes to Christian spaces too, and just being honest, you know, in my experience in coming in, this is where I definitely understand God giving me, I would say, an Esther moment in who I am, in everything he's created me to be, from my roots from my father, from my roots from my mom, my, you know, being a first-generation Latina, being undocumented, and a clergy in church planting, where- I'll be honest in saying- it's more, it's completely highlighted with a lot of white superiority at times, and I've been able to speak in certain instances as well, you know. So there's where I praise God in being able to speak for our communities and the courage I receive from, as well, like my mentors, my senior pastor, Cory. Like, honestly, that man believes above and beyond for me, for sure, than I think I personally see in certain professional development, but he's just encouraged me to continue advocating. We really talk about everything, you know. In him as well, his experience of what it looks like to be Black in America too, has been so great in learning from him as well. So I think this is what gives me the courage.

Sy Hoekstra: This has been a really incredible conversation. I really appreciate you two coming on here. It was genuinely an honor to sit here and just listen to the two of you interact with each other.

Is there anything, before we go, that the two of you want to plug. Anywhere that people can follow you.


Gabrielle Apollon: I think there's some orgs that you guys should follow if you want to learn more about immigration, Black immigrants, and how immigration justice is racial justice and vice versa. I've mentioned UndocuBlack. I've mentioned BAJI- Black Alliance of Just Immigration. There's also Haitian Bridge Alliance, which I'm a huge fan of. Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, which is also an amazing org.

But yeah, I usually Tweet about stuff related to Haiti and/or human rights, and/or randomness, and Sy and I sometimes get into Twitter spats if you're interested in that. [laughs] But my Twitter handle is @GApollon1, I think.

Sy Hoekstra: Yup. [laughs]

Gabrielle Apollon: That's it.

Sy Hoekstra: Milly, how bout you?

Milly Aquije: I love it. I think I'm going to do the same thing Gabrielle did, which is definitely mention a few like, immigration organizations that have been very helpful for me. And just also, just being part of their space has been very healing, which is New York State Youth Leadership Council. So the NYSYL actually is undocu led and stuff. And it's really awesome to have been part of their spaces. They also gave us spaces to heal and lament as we were all waiting for the decision of the Supreme Court last year for DACA. And the other one too, that's been, other two, I would say, that have been really awesome is the New York Immigration Coalition and New Sanctuary Coalition as well.

But in regards to myself, so my platform where I give hope for like, definitely for advocacy, for justice, for immigrants, and just saying certain times, just hope. Cause I feel like we need so much hope in this world in everything we've gone through. I feel like all of us also are healing from being traumatized for four years with so much rhetoric and hurts.

Gabrielle Apollon: Real talk.

Milly Aquije: And, just being honest, it really feels that way. And that's why, for me, that's a whole other tangent I won’t get into, but hearing certain times, certain people, from certain communities say, “So where are Latinos in this?” And I'm like, “We're still trying to recover from being traumatized after four years.” Because I was asked that question, and trust me, I'm still healing from it.

So, I would have to say the other platform for sure to look into for me is Hoping Greatly. So I have that as a platform in Instagram, in Twitter- I'm not so active in Twitter, and Facebook. But I'm always active in Instagram. So Hoping Greatly.

Sy Hoekstra: Milly, Gabrielle, thank you so much for being here today!

Gabrielle Apollon: Thanks for having us.

Milly Aquije: Yes. Thank you so much for having me! And Gabrielle- so amazing to hear from you too!

Gabrielle Apollon: Really great to talk to you.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Suzie Lahoud: Thanks so much for listening. As a reminder, you can subscribe to our blog at ktfpress.com. Follow us on social media on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @KTFPress; and subscribe to the podcast on whatever player you prefer.

Also, we’d love to hear from you. You can write to us at shakethedust@ktfpress.com with questions, written or recorded as a voice memo, and maybe we'll play your voice memo on a future episode.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra and our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you next week!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Sy Hoekstra: So, we've heard about Gabrielle's Prayer and Sangria group, she mentioned that briefly, and then Milly briefly mentioned her sort of Singleness, Lamentation, and Margaritas. [all laugh]

Gabrielle Apollon: That's a good name.

Milly Aquije: I love that!

Sy Hoekstra: I think if we just like, combine these two groups, I feel like that would be like, really powerful in some way.

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God – Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we seek Jesus instead of empire.