The Young Activists Who Remade the Democratic Party’s Immigration Politics
ï»¿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.
Wearing the caps and gowns that would become their signature, Dreamers staged mock graduations, walking out to “Pomp and Circumstance” and then breaking out in chants demanding that Congress pass the bill. An estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school every year. Dreamers argued that, save for a Social Security number, these young people are thoroughly American and ought to be granted the right to live and work and pursue their educations in the United States.
Dreamers were not deferential to the recognized leaders on immigration, including Representative Luis GutiÃ©rrez of Illinois, arguably the House Democrats’ point person, or to such large organizations as the National Council of La Raza. “It was really hard to find the space where we could speak for ourselves,” says Erika Andiola. They were asked only to be the faces of “real people” at public events. “When it came to being outspoken about saying, ‘OK, guys, [comprehensive] immigration reform isn’t going to pass—we need to move forward with the Dream Act,’ that’s when a lot of folks in DC were thrown off.”
The most audacious Dreamers began to stage sit-ins, including in then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s office, inviting officials to arrest them and trigger deportation proceedings. Getting arrested—be it for refusing to leave Arizona Senator John McCain’s Tucson office just months after the state’s landmark SB 1070 became law, or for blocking an intersection on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles—was a common occurrence. Andiola was known in Arizona for confronting anti-immigration politicians like Russell Pearce, and in DC for targeting senators with office sit-ins. The Dreamers’ public coming-out actions—led in many states by young, queer, and undocumented immigrants who understood “coming out” in multiple contexts—were confrontational, strategic, and unconcerned with party loyalty.
But the bill didn’t pass; Democrats were still unable to break the GOP-created impasse on immigration reform. However, the movement had a profound impact on immigrant discourse, and an equally lasting effect on young immigrant activists themselves.
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Ask Lorella Praeli and Erika Andiola why they got into electoral politics, and both tell stories about their moms.
Andiola remembers being conflicted when Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, then a newly elected representative, asked her to join her office as an outreach staffer in 2013. President Obama announced his first executive action for young undocumented immigrants, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), in June 2012, which gave Andiola and others who would have qualified under the Dream Act for a temporary shield from deportation and permission to work. But the order didn’t cover Andiola’s family, and when immigration officials raided the family home in Phoenix in January 2013, her mother and brother were hauled away in handcuffs. Andiola recorded a video plea for help that same night. “We need to stop separating families, and this is real,” she said to the camera in between sobs. “This is so real.” She uploaded the video to YouTube.
Andiola had already been public about her undocumented status for years as an outspoken organizer in the Dreamer movement, and she knew that community outcry and public shaming were often effective strategies in deportation-defense cases. People worked the usual channels: Twitter, Facebook, and the phones, generating a flood of calls to administration officials. The next day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released Andiola’s family members. The New York Times and CNN covered the incident. Andiola lamented that not all undocumented families could mobilize a national response overnight.
The job offer from Sinema ostensibly gave Andiola a new platform, but she was torn. “Am I going to be pulled away from my community? I don’t want to become an insider in DC that’s just worried about the politics and climbing up the ladder,” she remembers thinking. “My mom said something really amazing to me: ‘There are a lot of people who are going to go into those positions and have the vision of climbing up the ladder. I know you’re always going to keep us and your entire community in mind.’” Those words became like a pact between them.
Praeli, meanwhile, speaks of her mother’s disbelief when President Obama announced a second initiative, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), in 2014. The program offers the same short-term protection from deportation that the president’s earlier executive action offered, this time to some undocumented parents with children who are US citizens or green-card holders. Praeli’s mother, Chela Praeli, would qualify, and the Obama administration invited the pair to attend a November launch. They watched the president from the front row, Praeli with an arm around her mother’s shoulders.
“She kept saying, ‘CalificÃ³, calificÃ³.’” Praeli says. “And it wasn’t ‘I’m really excited that I qualify.’ It was ‘Is this real? Do I qualify?’” After almost two decades of being undocumented—trudging by foot for hours to and from work because she couldn’t drive without legal status, hiding to protect her family, even watching her own mother’s funeral on an iPad because she couldn’t travel to Peru to be there in person—Chela Praeli couldn’t comprehend the news. But the family’s excitement was short-lived: A lawsuit filed by 26 states has kept DAPA from getting off the ground. The Supreme Court is expected to review the case.
When DAPA was announced, Praeli was working as a staffer at United We Dream, which has called her a “master strategist.” She even met with the White House to fine-tune the policy that she hoped her mom would be able to take advantage of. And then it didn’t happen.
“You campaigned for it. Your mom came out of the shadows, and she campaigned for it. And all these people you know worked on it, and you witnessed the announcement of it, and you lived all that—it seems so cruel,” Praeli says of the crushing blow. That setback lit the fire that ultimately led her to accept a job with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “It got to a point where I had done everything I could,” she said of her decision to leave grassroots advocacy for electoral politics.
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Praeli first connected with United We Dream during the 2010 movement. The group held its annual gathering in Kentucky, and she made a 16-hour road trip there in a car full of people with different immigration statuses. “We got there, and there were 200 people who were so proud about being undocumented,” Praeli recalls. “And I was so confused. I was like, ‘Why are you all so happy you’re undocumented?’ It transformed my life.” Where fear and shame and isolation once dominated their ranks, these young immigrants had come together and found power and pride in their shared identity and struggle.
Despite the Dream Act’s narrow defeat—it lacked five votes to break a Republican filibuster—Dreamers had earned a central place in the debate, and the fact that they were the ones directly impacted by immigration policy conferred a moral authority on their advocacy. In 2012, as the pace of deportations quickened under President Obama, young activists again pushed the establishment away from its ineffectual efforts at comprehensive reform, arguing that the most pressing problem was the staggering deportation rate, which had topped 400,000 people a year. “When a family is being separated by deportation, the last thing they’re thinking about is citizenship,” says Cesar Vargas, who is Andiola’s partner in life as well as in Sanders’s campaign. “That elevated the conversation beyond a policy difference and focused it on who is speaking up and what are their needs.”
It was around this time that the immigrant-youth movement—which always encompassed differing approaches—split, says Tom Wong, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Those committed to moving the immigration debate forward in Washington were anchored by United We Dream, which had institutional funding, office space, and staff. Other groups, like the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) and the California Immigrant Youth Coalition, “were eager to recommit to more traditional forms of protest,” says Wong, and continued with ever more daring actions. Both strategies worked.
In the first week of June 2012, President Obama’s re-election campaign was in full swing, and GOP challenger Mitt Romney had been advocating a policy that would encourage undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.” Activists with NIYA staged a six-day hunger strike outside Obama’s Denver campaign office, then a sit-in inside. On June 15, Obama announced DACA, his first major executive action on immigration. It was an implicit recognition from the top of the party that the Dreamers were right: The administration’s unspoken strategy of using record-breaking deportations as a bargaining chip to bring Republicans to the table had failed. Roughly 1.7 million young people out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country qualified for deportation relief.
After that victory, Praeli became United We Dream’s director of advocacy and policy. In 2013, Congress geared up for yet another attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. The bill—which divided reform advocates sharply, thanks to compromises that further stiffened border enforcement—eventually cleared the Senate but fell apart in the House. By 2015, with DAPA tied up in the courts and congressional action clearly blocked, Praeli had started asking herself what else she could do, when Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s national political director, approached her at an event. “It wasn’t an easy decision at first,” Praeli says of her transition to life in a political campaign. She had preferred Obama in 2008, even though she couldn’t vote. But she was finally moved, she says, by Clinton’s “history of fighting for women, children, and families.”
Since assuming her post last May, Praeli has crisscrossed the nation, traveling to meet Latino voters in Iowa, Colorado, and Florida. Her job means knowing that it’s smarter to play Selena at a Texas rally and Marc Anthony at a Florida event. It’s meant talking to members of Latino communities across Colorado and learning that immigration isn’t the defining issue for Pueblo’s Latinos the way it is for Denver’s, and then trying to make sure the concerns she hears inform policy decisions. She’s also required to meet with immigrant-rights protesters, like those who showed up at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters in December to ask the candidate to take a stand for hunger-striking detainees—or those who interrupted the announcement of her own appointment to the campaign.
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While Praeli has moved ever closer to the center of power in politics since the DACA victory, Andiola has bounced between DC and Phoenix as she’s taken on a variety of roles that belie the traditional insider/outsider dichotomy. “If you were to ask me a couple years ago, ‘Would you ever work for a presidential candidate, or would you ever work for a congressperson?,’ I’d say: ‘Absolutely not—I would not do that,’” Andiola concedes. But like Praeli, she was haunted by the possibility that immigration reform had hit a wall that only electoral politics can knock down.
Andiola started out in Representative Sinema’s district office, but she was transferred to DC as the 2013 fight over comprehensive immigration reform heated up. Sinema “had just been elected, and so everyone in her office was very naive, and we were like: ‘I’m going to conquer the world from this office!’” Andiola says. But she soon learned that politics involves more than just appealing to lawmakers’ sense of fairness and justice. Money, in the form of campaign contributions, was its own form of power.
Her experience soured her, and she left Sinema’s office to return to organizing and to continue defending her mother in her ongoing immigration case. She took a job with the Guatemalan consulate as a caseworker doing triage at the height of the child-migrant crisis last summer. “I needed that,” Andiola says. “I needed to go back to grounding myself in the people and problems that are happening in the community.” But she also credits her time as a legislative staffer with motivating her to join Sanders’s campaign. “I don’t think you realize, until you start going inside the system and pushing [it] so hard and it doesn’t move, that you say, ‘OK, something’s not working here.’”
She segues smoothly into a plug for her boss, whose immigration platform she and Vargas played a key role in crafting. I ask Andiola why she decided to join a presidential campaign, especially for a candidate who’s stumbled on immigration issues in the past. She says there’s “a common denominator” between one of her deepest frustrations—Congress’s inability to move on reform—and Sanders’s critique of moneyed interests jamming up the wheels of democracy. “One of the biggest reasons immigration reform hasn’t become a reality is because there’s a lot of money behind private prisons,” Andiola argues. She also chafes at the broader contours of the Democratic race. “Why are we assuming that [Clinton] is going to win the nomination?” Andiola asks. “I want to tell the community: ‘There aremore options.’”
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Many dreamers from the 2010 fight are no longer involved in single-issue immigrant advocacy, having moved on to other spheres like labor, LGBT organizing, law, education, academia, and cultural work. After the defeat of the Dream Act, some went back to school, just as they’d been intending to do before their names made the headlines. So despite the fact that they’re supporting different candidates, Andiola’s, Vargas’s, and Praeli’s staying power makes them “much more similar than dissimilar,” argues Marielena HincapiÃ©, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
HincapiÃ© cites her interactions with the three former activists over the years: Vargas’s advocacy for a politically controversial provision of the Dream Act that would allow undocumented young people to serve in the military; Andiola’s remarkable ability to leverage strong grassroots power at key moments; and Praeli’s poise in making the case for executive action to White House officials. Vargas also waged a public campaign to win acceptance to the New York State Bar after he graduated from law school.
It’s easy to see how the three became especially attractive hires for the 2016 election cycle. It’s also easy to see why Clinton, fending off criticism that she’s a fair-weather progressive, would want to bring a savvy activist like Praeli into the fold, co-opting one of her potential critics. It’s just as easy to see how Sanders—who’s battled talk that he’s too white, too wacky, and too unknown to woo the Latino and immigrant vote—would benefit from hiring not just any Latino-outreach strategists, but two who have a national following and years of trust and goodwill in the community.
“There’s a dual reality here,” says Wong, the UC San Diego professor. “Part of the attraction of having these individuals work on presidential campaigns in 2016 is, they have a demonstrated track record of getting things done on a very difficult issue. But for candidates who are trying to reach out to Latinos, the undocumented-youth movement has also created a brand for itself when it comes to an appeal to immigrant communities.”
In 2012, Latino voters backed Obama over Romney 71 to 27 percent, and 2015 projections from the polling firm Latino Decisions suggest that whoever lands the GOP nomination will need to capture 47 percent of the Latino vote to win in November. However, that doesn’t relieve Democrats of their toughest challenge: coaxing Latinos, who have some of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the nation, to the polls. Every campaign needs a strategy.
But as historic as Praeli’s, Vargas’s, and Andiola’s campaign positions may be, the larger trend, Wong says, is one of immigrant youth becoming more civically engaged and turning to politics as the vehicle to fight for their communities. Six years ago, the landmark leadership achievement for a young undocumented immigrant-rights activist was announcing her status and maybe assembling a local student organization. Today, the marker is directing a major part of a Democratic presidential campaign. Call it the maturation of the movement, or just the individual progression of razor-sharp young people moving through their career arcs. Either way, one of the lasting achievements of the immigrant-youth movement is certainly the fact that those who came up in the 2010 fight for the Dream Act are now, five years on, in positions of leadership and influence in the Democratic Party.
This is not to say that the transition will always be an easy one. Vargas insists that he won’t compromise his political values for his job with the Sanders campaign. “I cannot be loyal to any party,” he states. “For us, loyalty means loyalty to our community and our families. If the senator was like, ‘No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’—if he wasn’t open to our ideas—we definitely would have dropped out a long time ago.”
This statement is more than a declaration of political integrity; it also burnishes Sanders’s reputation. To be fair, that’s not without cause. Ever since Vargas and Andiola (as well as their direct boss, Arturo Carmona, formerly of Presente.org) joined the campaign, Sanders has taken a far more aggressive stance on immigration reform. The Vermont senator has never been much known as a champion of immigrant rights, but last fall he announced a platform that, among other things, promises short-term deportation deferrals for the estimated 9 million people who would have been eligible under the failed 2013 comprehensive-reform bill.
“One of our objectives in this campaign was to focus on what the president cando, instead of what Congress cannot do,” Vargas says. “We’ve barely scratched the surface” when it comes to the options available to a president who wants to bring some relief to the nation’s undocumented immigrants. The same is true of the Dreamers themselves. “In the next few years,” Vargas predicts, “I think you’ll see someone become a citizen and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Dreamer, and I’m running for office.’”