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Student Organizers Cheer Arrival of Deferred Action, Brace for Bigger Fight

As President Obama's Executive Order halting the deportation of undocumented youth goes into effect, student leaders are optimistic -- and prepared to keep fighting.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Juan Camilo Bernal | Shutterstock.com

 

Luis Antezana’s first experiences of the United States were from the back of his parent’s van. As his parents worked through the night delivering newspapers and magazines to hotels and businesses, Luis and his brothers would nod off in the back seat, curled up on the stacks of newspapers ready to be delivered. Originally from Cochabamba, Bolivia, Luis remembers peering out of the van’s windows at the fancy hotels and wondering whether, one day, he would be able to walk through their doors in the light of day – without stacks of newspapers by his side.

Though the economic realities of his young life were difficult, Luis Antezana had no knowledge of his status as an undocumented immigrant until close to a decade after moving to the United States with his parents. He knew he was different, even from other Latinos, who bullied him in school and laughed at his particular Spanish dialect, and he knew he was poor, but had no reason to look beyond that. It was only during the college application process, when he attempted to apply for financial aid and realized he did not have a social security number, that Antezana started to understand the limitations of his status. He remembers looking back at his parent’s labors – working up to 18-hour days, through most of the night – and feeling a “click” in his brain. After so much effort, “we were still dirt poor,” he said. “All that time they had been working without papers.”

Today, Wednesday, August 15, is a big day for Antezana, now 20, and his fellow undocumented students: it is the day that the Obama administration will begin implementing their deportation deferral program, first announced through an executive order on June 15. The order, which came at President Obama’s behest, instructs the Department of Homeland Security to cease initiating the deportation of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States while under the age of 16; have lived here for at least five years; were under 30 years old as of June 15, 2012; and are in school, are high school graduates, or military veterans in good standing. The order also makes it possible for eligible youth to take steps to work legally and obtain a driver’s license, as well as other important documents.

The changes spelled out by the executive order will clearly have the potential to have a substantial impact in the lives of many undocumented immigrants. Though the extent of that impact will not be known for several months, there is no doubt that the order itself marks a startling achievement for the Right to Dream Campaign, a national effort coordinated by the youth-led United We Dream Network. The campaign launched on May 17 with the intent to pressure President Obama to provide administrative relief for undocumented immigrants, particularly students; by June 15, the president had responded. Though the student organizers behind this victory recognize that the order is just a temporary measure, many also see it as a much-needed win that points the way toward larger ones to come. Given the significant challenges and failures their work has faced in the past, the recent success of the Right to Dream campaign has been hugely invigorating for many -- both because of the relative speed of the victory and the tactics used to achieve it.

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I first met Justino Mora, an organizer for the California Dream Network and a 23-year-old graduate student at UCLA, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) offices in downtown Los Angeles, several weeks after the Executive Order was announced. I waited for him in the lobby, where numerous plaques commemorating CHIRLA’s achievements hung on the walls. The sound of voices speaking both Spanish and English permeated the office. And they were young voices, talking excitedly and laughing. Even as Mora walked me through the hallways of CHIRLA to his office, attempting to provide me with a brief history of the organization since its inception in 1986, those youthful voices, filled with excitement, followed us. “Interns,” Mora said, and smiled.