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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.

The presence of such youthful energy is not a coincidence; though sometimes overlooked by the mainstream media, the fact is that the immigrant rights movement is also a student movement. Primarily student led, the movement’s strategic goals also center around students’ needs and basic rights: the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that has been the most high-profile demand made by the movement for the last 10 years, primarily seeks to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students, and has been spearheaded by student movement leaders.

“The students have led these efforts,” Mora said emphatically. “A lot of people sympathize with young people who are doing their best to go to college and get a degree. So that is a big advantage, because we can connect with a lot of people. And we have taken advantage of that.”

But the experience of fighting for immigrant rights has hardly been all rosy. Before the recent run of success the movement has enjoyed – including the passage of the California Dream Act in 2011 and Obama’s Executive Order – came a period of defeat. While the movement was able to force a vote in Congress on the Federal Dream Act in 2010, it failed to withstand a filibuster. And simultaneously, on the statewide level the anti-immigration movement was winning major victories, including the enactment of Secure Communities and the passage of SB 1070.

For Mora, who was in Washington, DC for a month in an effort to get the Federal Dream Act passed, the failures were a wakeup call. He and his fellow organizers decided to adopt a focus on the state level, culminating in the passage of the California Dream Act. Moreover, they decided to go back to the states with the same emphasis on direct action and civil disobedience that they had used in fighting for the Federal Dream Act. These actions were revelatory in the amount of personal sacrifice they required: in one particularly high-profile example, in 2010, four students walked 1,500 miles from their homes in Miami, Florida to Washington, DC to raise awareness about the plight of undocumented youth. Although, the federal legislation ultimately failed to pass, there was nevertheless a sense that the daring tactics they’d used in that fight had had a profound effect. “Because the students organized through direct actions, they staked the movement to a whole different level,” Mora said. “That changed the course of the conversation around immigration reform.”

Yet even with their recent victories, the atmosphere in the CHIRLA office does not suggest a movement that has become either satisfied or complacent. For these students, a stopgap solution like the Executive Order may be a start, but it is not enough. To taste that victory so quickly, and after so many failed attempts, has empowered student organizers to continue to fight and has built a sense that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. “We accomplished our goal really early into the [Right to Dream] campaign,” Mora said. “Many students felt a sense of empowerment. I think that has given youth new hope – to continue fighting, to continue organizing.”

Student organizers have no reason to believe that this victory was a fluke. They believe in their tactics and are buoyed by their strong, personal ties to the movement – most organizers are themselves undocumented and are therefore fighting for their right to exist in the only country they know. These strong ties are also a motivating factor when student organizers undertake the often intense acts of personal risk and sacrifice that have become more and more a part of the movement.

In particular, the sharing of personal stories – at great perceived and actual risk -- has helped student organizers marshal widespread support for their cause. In a process of community building that doubles as a highly effective political action, an ever growing number of undocumented students have been “coming out of the shadows,” and making their status and stories public. This process, while undertaken by some individuals earlier in the decade, became a focal point of the movement’s strategy in 2010, and has continued to grow in practice since then.

Until 2010, when the first “Coming Out of the Shadows” rally was held in Chicago, Mora said, coming out of the shadows meant “putting yourself and your family at risk of deportation.” Yet student organizers began to realize that the more public they were with their status, the more protection they were afforded. They were no longer invisible – they put faces and names behind the label of “illegal” or “alien” and challenged the government to deport them. And in overwhelming numbers, students who came out of the shadows were not deported.

Antezana, now an undergraduate and student activist at Cal State Los Angeles, believes this tactic has had the most influence on the recent successes of the movement. “[Coming out of the shadows] was the biggest thing. That’s what put us, our faces, our stories into the mainstream media,” he said. “People felt it. We’ve got passionate, impressive individuals who want to continue on to higher education and contribute back to the community they’ve grown up in.” Their personal stories have been hard for many people – journalists, politicians, and everyday citizens – to ignore.

***

When I ask Mora to describe his own reaction to the news of the Executive Order, and the impact it’s likely to have, he tells me a story of perseverance and stubbornness, of sticking to the principles built out of the movement’s shared stories and struggles, and not being satisfied with the “easy” choice.

On June 14, 2012, the day before Obama’s Executive Order was announced, Mora received a call from his supervisor. Mora was working as the media lead for an action planned to take place the next day, in downtown Los Angeles, as part of the Right to Dream campaign. His supervisor told him that they had just gotten a call from the White House saying that President Obama had decided to grant administrative relief to students. Yet Mora and his fellow organizers were skeptical. “I thought – this could just be another announcement, like they always do,” he said.

His skepticism was well founded -- immigrant rights activists had received public assurances from government officials before. Almost a year prior, on June 17, 2011, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, had issued a memorandum calling for increased discretion amongst immigration agents. The memo urged agents to consider several factors before deciding a case, including how long the immigrant has been in the United States, whether he was brought to the country as a child, and whether he was currently a student or held a degree. Initially excited by what the memorandum might bring, many organizers, including Mora, realized over the next few months that, in fact, the memo was having little practicable effect. “It failed miserably,” he said. “It was a joke.”

Confronted with what at first seemed to be a similar announcement – although this time from Obama himself – Mora and his fellow organizers took the success in stride and waited to see how it would play out. They decided to go ahead with their action (which was also coordinated by members of Dream Team LA and the Orange County Dream Team) and rallied more than 170 students and Dream Act supporters in front of the federal office building in downtown Los Angeles.

As the day progressed, more information was released pertaining to the Executive Order. Yet even as this information became available to the protesters during the action, they did not leave. They praised Obama publicly for making what they knew to be a shrewd political decision, but also sent the message that while they were happy with the development, they regarded the administrative relief as just one important step towards comprehensive immigration reform. It would have been easy to go home. But instead, they stayed – and kept fighting.

Expect that kind of passion to be fueling the movement for quite some time. Given the temporary nature of the relief that is about to be granted, Mora and his fellow organizers are well aware that there is much more work to be done – and they are already in the thick of it, currently focused on pressuring Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to make his stance on immigration known. There is concern among organizers that the general public could view the relief as a permanent solution. An electoral victory for a non-sympathetic candidate in November could lead to this relief being removed in the blink of an eye. Moreover, there is still a healthy amount of skepticism directed at the relief itself; ICE’s discouraging record of exercising discretion is not easily forgotten.

Yet there is also a strong feeling that after so many ups and downs, this victory was much needed. For Mario Castillo, an undergraduate student at Occidental College and a past volunteer at CHIRLA, the ability to apply for a work permit and a driver’s license could have an immediate impact. “It will open more opportunities for me,” he said. “[Before the order was announced] I was really worried that I was going to graduate in a year with this excellent education and I wouldn’t have anywhere to go with it because I couldn’t work.” Castillo has always wanted to have a career, to be a professional and be able to provide a service to the country that has provided so much for him. “It gives me hope that I could be more accepted into this society, and contribute, and give back. Because I have received a lot.”

Antezana also regards the order as a sign of better things to come. “Maybe not next year, maybe not in two years, but at some point the country is going to be behind us, supporting us. We’re going to make this happen.”

Jacob Surpin is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. He is currently a student at Occidental College and lives and works in Los Angeles, California.