These Activists Are Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights. Will Congress Listen?

These Activists Are Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights. Will Congress Listen?

These Activists Are Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights. Will Congress Listen?

In 2012, young people pushed for the establishment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But the work is far from over.

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Growing up, Norma Gonzalez remembers how their parents were afraid to even drive down the street. As undocumented immigrants who spoke only Spanish, their parents feared racial profiling from the police. “Throughout my life we had to move all over Texas. I was getting into a new school once or twice a year,” said Gonzalez. “It was really hard because of my parents’ status. We had no financial stability. We had to keep looking for different jobs.”

Moved by their family’s experience, Gonzalez became involved in immigrant advocacy, eventually serving as the Lead Organizer at United We Dream for Texas, the largest youth-led immigrant advocacy group in the nation. Gonzalez said they first found the organization in college when a fellow student government member invited them to come to a meeting. Three days later, Gonzalez found themselves on a 23-hour drive to the United States capital.

“[We] were going to Washington, D.C., to fight for the DREAM Act back in 2018. I went there not knowing what to expect at all. My mom was scared because she didn’t want me out there to protest,” said Gonzalez. “She thought it was very scary. And honestly, I was scared too. But I went there and I felt something I hadn’t felt in years. I felt community. I instantly felt recognized.”

Gonzalez, who is interested in becoming an immigration attorney, said they became disheartened when they realized that many financial aid programs, scholarships, and types of housing assistance are not available to undocumented people. But with United We Dream, they’ve found a vehicle to work toward their goals while at the same time building critical community. “I’m really happy to have joined an organization that is brave enough to say things like ‘abolish ICE,’ that is brave enough to call out politicians who don’t have our community’s best interests in mind.”

After the midterm elections, with Republicans winning control of the House of Representatives, United We Dream pushed to pass legislation that would give undocumented people citizenship before the new Congress convened. The organization was not alone. On November 15, the National Immigration Law Center released a statement urging Congress to prioritize passing a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youth before the end of the year. Despite past promises, however, Congress failed to include provisions for a pathway to citizenship in 2022’s omnibus spending bill.

“We’re disappointed,” said Raha Wala, vice president of strategic partnerships and advocacy at NILC. “But we’re not giving up. We think we have a strong moral case, a strong policy case, and even a strong political case to urge Congress to take action to protect immigrant youth.” Undeterred, Wala said NILC is focused on continuing its efforts to press Congress to pass a legislative package that would make Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections federal law.

NILC also intends to push President Biden’s administration to take immediate action, Wala added. He’s been disappointed with the lack of progress towards more comprehensive immigration reform in the past few years. “We haven’t really seen that level of commitment,” Wala said. “I think that there’s certainly an opportunity to work with the [Biden] administration, but they haven’t really stepped up and the president needs to do more to advance humane immigration policy.”

Josh Behrens, a second-year law student at UCLA shares the same sentiments. He said he hasn’t seen the Biden administration or Democrats fight for these reforms the way immigration advocates, like himself, have hoped for. “It’s frustrating to keep fighting for them if they’re not going to do much to support the immigration advocates and the immigrants who are really helping put them in power,” said Behrens.

As a member of UCLA Law Students for Immigrant Justice—an organization involved in advocacy efforts for immigrants in Los Angeles—Behrens was involved in a walk-out protest with other law students when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur Jaddou came to speak at an event hosted by UCLA’s School of Law’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy in August. “Politicians can promise a whole bunch of things, but then when they get in power, they don’t always follow through,” said Behrens. “It is the task of organizers to create enough political pressure to force politicians and people in power to do things that they say.”

Following the midterm elections, immigrant advocacy groups moved quickly to try to secure protections for immigrants. Diana Pliego, a policy associate for NILC and a DACA recipient, said her organization is focused on helping DACA youth and undocumented people secure permanent protection—which includes affordable health care and workplace protections. Activists from Aliento, an undocumented, youth-led organization fighting inequalities for immigrants, also celebrated the passing of Proposition 308 in Arizona following the midterm elections. The nonpartisan proposition gives undocumented students in Arizona, who have graduated and attended school in the state for at least two years, access to financial aid and in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. “Every single door shut to my face was worth it, because at the end of the day I knew that I was advocating for something bigger than myself,” said Nathalya Galvez, a third-year political science student at Arizona State University and an Aliento student fellow.

Like many advocates, Galvez’s advocacy and involvement in Aliento were inspired by her family’s story. Galvez is a first-generation student born of immigrant parents. This is also the case for Miah Gomez, a senior at Mesa High School who hails from a mixed-status family.

Despite the youth-led nature of immigration advocacy movements, a recent survey from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement showed that only 11 percent of people under 30 listed immigration as one of their “top 3 concerns.” Although immigration is not a priority, the majority of Americans are still in favor of DACA. According to data from the Pew Research Center, approximately 74 percent of Americans favor a law that would provide permanent legal status for illegal immigrants who came to the US as children.

Gomez encourages young voters to empathize with immigrants and spotlights the importance of gaining perspective on these political issues. “Not everything on that ballot is going to directly relate to you…. voting is putting yourself in other’s shoes,” Gomez said. “I think it’s really important for young voters to go out there and gain perspective,” she added. ”Luckily, I have this perspective because I’ve grown up with parents who have taught me to care about these issues, to care about immigration.”

During the course of the lame-duck session, Pliego said, NILC met with both Democratic and Republican politicians to clear a path for an immigration reform bill. “I wish that Congress would really take a moment to step into our shoes just a bit and try to understand what it’s like to live in this constant uncertainty,” she said. “They have the power to end that and to give us that peace of mind that we’ve been asking for literally decades.”

José Muñoz, the deputy communications director of United We Dream, hopes young people will increase their involvement in pro-immigrant movements. Muñoz has heard dangerous rhetoric from the leadership of less-immigrant- friendly states such as Texas and Florida, but he is grateful for grassroots organizers who continue to push back against these harmful narratives. Young people are capable of achieving tremendous change. They forced the establishment of DACA itself in 2012. “That is the energy that we need from young people to continue to lead us into future victories,” Muñoz stressed.

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