Shortly after Hillary Clinton took the microphone to deliver a speech on immigration to a packed Brooklyn ballroom in December, the interruptions started. Activists calling attention to hunger-striking detainees silently unfurled a banner. More vocal protesters criticized Clinton for saying last year that asylum-seeking child migrants should be “sent back” to Central America. Clinton simply raised her voice and spoke more forcefully. But after the silent banner and before the heckling, she also paused to recognize Lorella Praeli, her new director of Latino outreach.
Clinton spoke at length about Praeli, offering a profile heavier on biographical details than on professional credentials. (Born in Peru, Praeli came to the United States for medical care at age 10 and became politically active after learning in high school that she was undocumented.) She mentioned that Praeli was set to be sworn in as a citizen by President Obama the very next day. Standing alone by an exit, Praeli beamed and held back tears; her father walked over and embraced her.
Clinton moved on to criticize Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant circus act and Marco Rubio’s waffling indecision on immigration reform. By the time the candidate vowed—to cheers—to shut down family- detention centers, Praeli had maneuvered to the opposite side of the ballroom, where security had pulled a protester outside. Not long ago, she was a spokesperson for those interrupting the Democratic establishment; now, she’s stepping in on behalf of the party’s front-runner.
Praeli, 27, is part of a generation of young undocumented activists who have wholly reshaped the Democratic Party’s immigration politics in the years since Barack Obama’s first campaign. The current election cycle has shown just how dangerous campaign seasons can be for immigrants, just how easy it is to turn people deemed outsiders into targets. But it’s also been a watershed moment for the immigrant-rights movement. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates have recruited prominent players from the loose group of young activists known as “Dreamers” to guide their campaigns’ Latino outreach. While Clinton brought on Praeli, Bernie Sanders chose Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas. All three were until recently undocumented; none have voted in a presidential election. They all enter presidential politics at a movement crossroads: Without a reconfiguration of Congress, legislative reform appears indefinitely stalled. That reality has forced immigrant-rights activists to re-examine their strategy and has prompted the movement’s stars to step into campaign politics, betting on the candidates they think will most likely alter Washington’s political balance of power.
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Praeli, Andiola, and Vargas rose to national prominence in the run-up to the Senate’s 2010 vote on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the Dream Act. The bill had been around for almost a decade without much energy behind it—until the winter of 2009, when young undocumented immigrants suddenly began declaring their status unapologetically. At the time, it was still unheard of to take such a risk. Those doing so called themselves Dreamers. The label was at first a demographic marker, a catchall term for young immigrants with exceptional academic backgrounds, lofty professional ambitions, and no criminal records—because that’s the kind of profile the bill required for gaining legal status. But, ultimately, it became a political identity as well.