After grueling one month long journeys that span over 1,000 miles, undocumented immigrants from Central America reach the United States physically and emotionally damaged from their experiences. Close to 70,000 children made the trek north last spring in order to escape violence and poverty, with the hopes of reuniting with their family and starting a new life. Terra Firma, a pediatric clinic headquartered in the Bronx, helps serve their many needs.
Shut down twice by the city government over the past two decades, 81 Bowery is still popular for the poorest Chinese laborers in New York City. The 40 roofless cubicles on its fourth floor are where the residents call home.
Eighty-one-year-old Liu, or “Grandpa Liu”, as other tenants call him, has been living here for two months. He shares a cubicle with another man and pays $195 per month for rent. For him, moving around is the norm.
“We either don’t speak English, or are undocumented, so we cannot sign leases,” said Liu. “When I first came here, I found a place on Delancey Street, eight of us shared a one-bedroom apartment. I lived there for two years, and then the person who signed the lease was gone. All of us had to move out. It’s like this every time.”
Chinese are the second most undocumented immigrants in the country.
Mae Lee, the executive director of Chinese Progressive Association, said that many of the houses in Chinatown actually don’t have leases because the landlords never offer them one.
“There is a language barrier of course, but many of the migrants also don’t know their rights and don’t know about leases. Especially those who are undocumented, they are more vulnerable,” said Lee. “ I’ve heard cases in which the landlords threatened to turn in the undocumented tenants to the government.”
Liu has moved so many times over the years that he couldn’t name every one of them. He remembers living in three places on Broome Street, the longest stay was seven years, and the shortest was two weeks.
“Rent should be one third of your income, that is the national standard of how you can live comfortably. But in Chinatown the rent is roughly the same as the median household income, which is $2700,” said Lee. “For many migrants, Chinatown is the first place where they come to live. They have nothing and they are paid poorly, but there is just not enough affordable housing in here.”
According to the Asian American Federation of New York Census Information Center’s research, almost one third of the Chinese in New York City live below the poverty line, many do not speak English and have never finished high school. This contributes to living conditions like at 81 Bowery.
No private bathroom, no kitchen and no stove make daily life very hard in 81 Bowery. Liu only cooks once a day and saves the food in the tiny fridge for the rest of the day.
Liu has lived in New York City for 17 years. He grew up in Southern China’s Fujian Province, which is where most Chinese migrants in New York are from. His son was the first one in the family who immigrated to America, followed by his two daughters. Liu and his ex wife, whom he divorced 35 years ago, were the last to come.
“Seventeen years ago, I was still strong enough to work,” said Liu. “Now I’m too old.”
He worked in a nail salon owned by a guy he knew back in Fujian, until five years ago. Now he has a green card, the government gives him $500 per month’s subsidy.
“I have no family here in New York. My son and daughters are in Connecticut,” said Liu. But he would rather stay in New York than living with them in Connecticut. “They all have their own families now.”
Liu is proud of his families. “My biggest grandson is a college graduate,” he said. “He is an engineer and he makes decent money; unlike me, I’m illiterate, I never went to school.” However, Liu said he hadn’t talked to him for years, not even over the phone.
Liu’s best friend in 81 Bowery is Jiang, a 37-year-old construction worker. Jiang has been here for seven years, and never got married. “I live here because it’s cheap,” said Jiang, “I’m still paying back my stowaway fee to the ‘snakehead’.”
Snakehead refers to the infamous Chinese gangsters in New York City who help people enter America illegally. Most of the money Jiang made over the years has been paid to his snakehead, so he has no savings. He lives in a cubicle by himself and pays $250 per month.
Liu is moving out again in late February, to temporarily stay with his friend in Flushing, Queens before going back to China for a visit. He has no idea where to live when he comes back to New York.
Ana Maria Jemenez at the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Corona Park, Queens. Photo by Maria Panskaya
For Ana Maria Jemenez, celebrating the Day of the Dead on November 2nd in Corona, Queens was not all about cheer and fun. She, along with other immigrants from Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Dominican Republic and El Salvador, instead talked about their concerns regarding the upcoming midterm elections and it’s effect on the immigration reform.
The DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001, provided some residential rights to illegal immigrants under the age of 35, allowing them to get work authorization and educational opportunities. So far only 15 states have their versions on the DREAM Act, including New York State.
“I brought my son illegally to this country,” said Jemenez, 39. “He is now 13 and goes to school. I want him to have good education and good future.”
Jemenez, unlike her son who is living in the U.S. under the DREAM Act, is facing deportation. Her case has been with the Immigration Services department for two years. She lives in fear that one day someone would knock on her door and deport her back to Colombia.
Living in fear and barely making ends meet while working two jobs, Jemenez refuses to stay ignorant about her rights as an undocumented worker and constantly follows any developments on immigration reforms as well as senate, house, presidential, or even local government elections. Never use illegal alien..it is considered offensive.
“Yes, I cannot vote,” said Jemenez, who only has a little trace of a Colombian accent. “But it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I always hope that immigrants like me would get more rights, just like President Obama promised.”
Jemenez, said she understands how the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives operate and is very concerned about the outcome of the midterm elections..
“If Republicans win, we, and I mean all immigrants, are going to be deported,” said Jemenez. “Republicans don’t like Latinos. But we work hard, we love this country. The jobs we do, American would never do.”
Jemenez works at a local grocery store, doing everything from scrubbing floors to working at the cash register. The storeowner pays her $6.75 per hour. Since she doesn’t have legal papers there is nobody she can complain to. According to Jemenez, if Republicans win the senate she will lose the little that she has now.
Miriam Guzman, 42, from Mexico, works as a fulltime babysitter for $10 an hour. If she weren’t an illegal immigrant, her salary would be $15 an hour.
“Family I work for is rich,” said Guzman. “They hired me because I speak Spanish and their children love me. They pay me less because they know I have no papers and no choice, but to accept what they give me.”
Miriam Guzman and her fiancé, Greorge Pateka. Photo by Maria Panskaya
Despite the fact that the midterm election turnout is usually quite low, with turnout of eligible voters never going beyond 50% according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, undocumented immigrants from Latin America fully understand that midterm elections can be even more important than the presidential election.
“What people don’t realize is that the outcome of the midterm elections will determine the future of the country and possibly effect the presidential election outcome in 2016,” said Alan Acosta, 34, a Hispanic community activist and volunteer, Queens. “I received my green card a year ago under the DREAM Act, after a nine-year-long battle with paper work, and I’m going to vote on Tuesday. Sometimes one vote can make a difference.”
Acosta came to the U.S. illegally from Dominican Republic when he was 19, before the DREAM Act was introduced. But the act eventually made him eligible for getting social security, then work authorization and citizenship.
“This was a dream come true,” said Acosta. “I want every immigrant to experience the joy and relief I experienced a year ago.”
According to Pew Research Center, the percentage of eligible Hispanic voters is dropping by seven percent each year nationwide. One of the issues of low turnout among Latinos is underrepresentation.
“We have a black president and the majority of congress, senate and house officials are white,” said Jemenez. “I want to see more Hispanic representatives. I feel like Latino population doesn’t vote that much is because there is nobody we can vote for.”
According to Migration Policy Institute, undocumented immigrants from Latin America represent 46% of all foreign born immigrants, who currently reside in the U.S., with 28% of them being Mexicans. Indians and Chinese, along with other Asian countries, represent 29% combined together. The other 25% are immigrants from Europe and Africa.
All immigrants who cross the border with the U.S. on illegal terms, whether smuggled on a ship or train or traveled with fake passports, have one dream in common—becoming the U.S. citizens. While the Obama administration has expressed strong support for numerous immigration reforms, like the DREAM Act, the majority of those propositions were voted down in the Senate.
In May 2014 New York State tried to expend the DREAM Act policy by enacting free college education to immigrants, but the initiative hadn’t been passed.
“It’s already hard enough for the president and his aids to pass any bill and to get it approved,” said Acosta. “And it’s going to be even worse if Republicans win the Senate. The next two years are going to be hell not only for the president, but also for all immigrants.”
Demonstrators from DRUM gathered to call for immigration reform in front of Senator Chuck Schumer’s Midtown Manhattan office. Photo credit: Megan Jamerson
by Megan Jamerson
A group of undocumented teens undeterred by the rain, stood on a Midtown Manhattan sidewalk performing a mock trial of President Obama yesterday afternoon.
The issue in question was immigration reform. The concern, that President Obama is delaying a statement on administrative relief until after the midterm election for political gain.
“It’s unfair that Obama has continuously postponed this statement and it’s for his party politics,” said Jensine Raihan of Astoria, Queens. “He is prioritizing the Democratic Party over peoples lives and that’s unfair.”
Raihan, 16, is a youth leader for Desis Rising Up and Moving(DRUM), the group responsible for conceiving the idea for the demonstration. DRUM is a grassroots organization representing the interests of low-income South Asian and Muslim immigrants in New York City.
Their demonstration is part of a week of coordinated action across the country to call for the president to produce a statement. An executive order for administrative relief would postpone deportation for undocumented workers and grant them work permits.
A group of over 50 people, made up of mostly young adults, attended the 30-minute demonstration in front of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s 3rd Avenue office. They believe Schumer, like Obama, has failed to act with expediency on immigration. They wish to be heard by Washington.
“As immigrants we know what’s best for us, we know what our experiences are, we want to share those experiences and we should be the judge of what’s in our favor, in our benefit” said Fahd Ahmed, 34, of Jackson Heights, Queens.
Ahmed is acting executive director for DRUM, and was overseeing the youth leadership demonstration. He said he was pleased with the turnout.
“We are very happy and very excited,” said Ahmed. “I think the visuals of it are very beautiful.”
While the group remained peaceful, respecting the boundaries of the demonstration line set up by the NYPD, they were not quiet. They chanted, and held vibrantly colored signs with various demands. “Deferred action for all” “Administrative relief now” and “People over politics.”
A courtroom scene was set with handmade cardboard podiums and a gavel. Two DRUM members held masks over their faces with the likeness of Obama and Schumer. They stood by as some came forward to testify and tell their stories.
“It’s a struggle every day to survive,” said Subashish Barua, 25 an undocumented native of India. “Working long hours, paying taxes, and not being paid properly, and still getting abused by employers just because I’m undocumented”.
Barua said he endures low wages and poor working conditions out of a dedication to support his family back home. Being the only son of his family, they depend on his income.
If an executive order for administrative relief was granted Barua could qualify for a work permit, which would allow him to be employed under legal conditions, he said. The DRUM youth leaders feel stories like Barua’s are far too common and action needed to be taken.
“Activism is a way of both defending myself and my family and friends,” said Raihan. “I’ve been affected by policies that promote income inequality.”
Once the week of organized action is over, the youth leadership team at DRUM will work on a plan to reevaluate and decide what steps need to be taken next. Regardless, the plan is to continue to challenge the political leadership.
“The idea is to keep up the pressure, we are not going to wait until after the election,” said Ahmed “We are going to keep up the pressure.”
Border Patrol officer rescues immigrant girl stranded on banks of Rio Grande. Photo by Donna Burton. US Customs and Border Protection on Flickr, Creative Commons license
by Virgina Gunawan
Thirteen-year-old Dana ran away from Guatemalan home to the Unites States because she was afraid for her life. The gang she used to be a part of killed her stepmother because she did not want to be a member anymore. Running was the only way she felt she could survive.
Dana’s story was told by Jennifer Friedman, the director of PACE Public Interest Law Center, at a public hearing on migrant youth yesterday. Dana is one of 57,000 migrant Central American youths, who have fled from their home country because of violence and extreme poverty this year. But many also come to the U.S. in search of their parents or other relatives who have immigrated to this country, most of these adults are undocumented.
Once these children are here, it is rarely a happy ending. This year, 90,000 youth will be detained and face deportation proceedings. Without an understanding of the law system in the U.S., they blindly put their fate into the hand of judges.
“Two third of these children are eligible to have remedy under the U.S. law,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New York during his testimony. “However, they do not know about it because they don’t know about their rights, they don’t get good information.”
Monsignor Sullivan along with four other witnesses spoke at the public hearing held by the Assembly Standing Committee on the Children and Families Task Force on New Americas yesterday, at The New York State Assembly Hearing Room in Lower Manhattan. The hearing’s goal was to determine what the states can do to better serve these migrant youth and the residents of New York.
Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village pointed to the importance of providing legal services to assist migrant children.
“We should find a pragmatic solution for the problem,” he said. “If we don’t, they will go to any land, making a border crisis.”
Nisha Argarwal, the commissioner from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, argued that the city had provided the service needed for these children. Recently, the city placed a representative at the immigration court to serve and provide information for them. The city also has ensured the children’s rights for education and health care.
“Rather than coming up with new programs, we need to optimize the ones that have already been created, “she said.
New York State is not the only one to face the proliferation of youth migrant, who are coming mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. California and Maryland are among the first states to create standards in dealing with these childrens. While immigration and deportation proceedings are federal issues, many migrant children, as young as 18-months- old to 17-yearsold, must go before Family Court or become wards of the states.
Friedman, tallked about the legal issues that the migrant children of Hudson Valley, Westchester face.
“In defending them, it is impossible to use private practice because of the excessive fee. Even pro bono still needs money,” she said. “So, although many migrant children are eligible for remedy, it’s difficult and complicated.”
But Monsignor Sullivan is convinced that the community can help migrant children.
“Although we cannot change the immigration law, we can give a future to the children of the migrant,” he said. “If we invest in these children’s future, we invest in New York’s future.”
Alden Nesbitt no longer looks forward to his birthday. On his birthday two years ago, Nesbitt received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services telling him he had 90 days to leave the country. He had become undocumented.
The New York City Department of Education recruited international teachers from the Caribbean in 2001 during a teacher shortage. Hundreds of teachers brought their families over to the United States, including Nesbitt’s.
But due to a long and complex immigration process, some of their children turned 21 before these teachers could receive their Green Cards. Since they were over the age of 21, these children were no longer considered dependents of their families, making them ineligible to benefit from their parent’s immigration status, a process known as aging out.
Nesbitt, 23, chose to stay and advocate for families in his situation. Working with The Black Institute, a New York-based non-profit, Nesbitt co-founded The International Youth Association (TIYA) in 2011 alongside Mikhel Crichlow, 27, who became undocumented under the same circumstances.
“Meeting up with The Black Institute and starting The International Youth Association gave me a glimmer of hope that somehow I could still fight for what I feel was promised to me and my family,” said Nesbitt.
With current immigration legislation looming in Congress, Nesbitt and Crichlow continue their push for the rights of the children of recruited professionals and their right to documentation.
Angy Rivera and came to the United States from Armenia, Columbia with her mother when she was three years old. Growing up in Queens, her life was controlled by a secret. Rivera, now 22, is undocumented.
“You grow up with this fear, this insecurity, don’t trust anybody,” she said. “What kind of lifestyle is that where you’re trying to function like a normal human being but right off the bat you don’t trust anybody.”
Rivera found many questions, and few answers.
“I had my best friends from middle school who I didn’t know if I could tell,” she said. “And my partners, if I had a bf, should I tell him? You have this big secret that you keep and you isolate yourself.” She was told she could not go to the airport, the DMV, or even the hospital. Public settings would require identification, or unwanted questions.
“I felt like I was suffocating in it, and that’s what motivated me—seeing that fear,” she said.
In October 2010, Rivera created Ask Angy, the first and only advice column for undocumented youth.
“When you’re undocumented you just want to find answers anonymously online,” Rivera said. “I wanted a place where people could ask questions and feel safe, but still be anonymous if they choose to be and just have that resource out there.”
Angy Rivera tells her story.
Immigrants rights activists and legislators faced a setback last week in the push for the New York DREAM Act, which would give financial aid opportunities to undocumented youth, when the act failed to be included in this year’s $135 billion state budget.
The bill’s failure to be included in the budget stemmed from a discrepancy between the state’s two legislative bodies, the assembly and the senate. The State Assembly, which currently has a Democratic majority, had already included $25 million in its budget for the New York DREAM Act. However, the Senate never included it in its version of the budget.
“In the Senate it’s a much more complex situation right now,” said Katherine Tabares, a youth organizer for the not-for-profit Make the Road New York. “Republicans are not in favor of it and they, together with the independent Democratic caucus, form the majority.” There are currently 22 sponsors of the bill in the 63-member Senate.
Since it was not incorporated into the budget, the bill’s only chance of being enacted this year would be if both houses pass it by the end of the legislative session in June. The bill would make New York the fourth state to pass a DREAM Act granting undocumented students access to state funded financial aid. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, but only 5-10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go to college, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Assemblymember Francisco Moya introduced the bill in its current form in mid-January alongside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah J. Glick. The bill would give access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to qualifying undocumented youth, also establishing a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for scholarships for children on immigrants. To qualify for the bill, undocumented students must have attended a New York high school for at least two years, graduated or received a GED, enroll in a college or university in the state of New York, and meet the requirements for TAP.
Senate Republicans in opposition to the bill have taken issue with its use of public funds. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said legislation establishing a private Dream Fund instead had a possibility to pass this year.
“I think there is support from people that tend to be a little bit more conservative,” said Skelos at the Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum in February. “As long as it’s private money put into the fund.”
But Tabares said there are already private funds for undocumented students, and that they do not go far enough to meet their financial needs.
“Regardless of whether national immigration reform is passed or not, the time that it would take for an undocumented youth to actually receive financial benefits from the federal government will be up to 14 years, so many students will have already graduated,” said Tabares, who is also a second semester student at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. “The NY DREAM Act needs to pass this year because there are so many youth right now who can’t attend college.”
Governor Cuomo, who has come out in support of a federal DREAM Act, has yet to voice his support for the state sponsored legislation. Legislators in support of the bill have recently been more vocal in pushing the governor to take a stance.
“On behalf of all Dreamers, I am urging Governor Cuomo to again bring to bear his great courage, considerable political skills and extraordinary leadership abilities in getting something big, important and meaningful done. And make no mistake: Immigration reform is important and most certainly needs to get done,” said cosponsor Senator Jose Peralta in a statement last week.
“If Cuomo came out in support, many of the Senate Republicans in a neutral position right now could change their minds,” said Taberes. “But he hasn’t been vocal about it, and there continues to be opposition and a lot of doubt over the bill.”
Other undocumented students continued to hope the bill would pass while they were still in school.
“I feel behind compared to my citizen friends who have financial aid,” said Viviana Sanchez, a student at York College in Jamaica, Queens. “There are thousands of Dreamer students in New York State it would mean a lot to them, to parents—to my parents—and to myself.”
Sanchez, 19, added that her financial situation and inability to receive state financial aid have kept her a semester behind and forced her to attend college part-time.
“It’s been very hard for me to get through school, I try to work to supplement it with a bit of my parents help, but it’s still taking longer than it should,” she said.
Sanchez on the financial burden of being an undocumented student
Tabares said the key to having the bill pass was continued activism throughout the state.
“I personally have seen the growth in the last three years about the community being more vocal and supportive about it,” said Tabares. “Undocumented youth have been fighting for the NY DREAM act for years, you just can’t give up until you get what you want.”
Last month nearly 200 students and activists joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization that represents undocumented youth, in an organized trip to the state capital calling on legislators to enact the NY DREAM Act. The group completed scheduled visits with 59 legislative offices and in addition to those planned visits, also completed drop-in visits with 31 additional legislative offices, according to Gabriel Aldana, a member of the NYSYLC.
As a result, the group had 12 new co-sponsors, said Aldana.
Maria Jaime, 21, co-coordinator of the Westchester chapter of the NYSYLC, led a team of participants to meet with staff of State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, and Assembly Member Addie J. Russell.
“Lobbying like this is a crucial part of passing a bill, focusing on activism and getting out in the streets,” said Jaime, a senior at Manhattanville College. “At the end of the day politicians are voting on the bill, but we give them that power as constituents.”
According to a report by the NYSYLC in conjunction with NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, the cost of extending the Tuition Assistance program would be approximately $17 million per year.
“If the New York State DREAM legislation were financed through the state income tax, it would represent 87¢ per year—less than the price of a single donut—for a median tax payer,” said Jaime.
Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, a co-sponsor of the bill following the NYSYLC’s trip to Albany, said he looked forward to the bill coming to the floor.
“This is an issue that has been before us for a number of years, I think it’s of the utmost importance that everybody be given the opportunity in this country to advance themselves and move on,” he said.
Pretlow on the importance of passing the NYS Dream Act
Jaime said overall she felt the visit was a success, and that the most rewarding aspect was seeing others in her team share their stories with legislative staff.
“Seeing how each time you tell a story it gets more a little more personal, that’s great for their own growth throughout the day,” she said. “Last year when I came was the first time I shared my story with politicians as well, I didn’t tell anyone but I was really scared, but once you say it out loud it’s so empowering.”
Maria Jaime on putting a face to the issue
Sanchez, a member of Jaime’s team, echoed the sentiment.
“Of course it’s daunting to tell a politician your story, they’re the people who make the laws, the people who decide if I stay here or not, if the New York DREAM act passes or not,” she said. “But it’s such a big accomplishment for me.”
Juan Escalante discovered that he was undocumented in 2007. While he was applying to college, his mother revealed to him that his family’s visas had expired.
“My world just kind of shrunk in perspective,” he said. “I fell into a depression and I didn’t go to school that fall.”
Escalante and his family immigrated to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela in the year 2000 after his father was granted a work visa. Working with lawyers, the Escalante family was on their way to making a permanent transition to life in Miami, Florida.
“Our lawyers said we didn’t need to renew our visas anymore, that they could get us a legal permanent residence,” said Escalante, 23. “So we didn’t renew, thinking it was the best decision we could make, but guess what? Our application was denied and our case was closed without appeal because of our lawyer’s negligence. That’s why I’m trapped in this circle. We just fell into this grey area in immigration.”
Escalante, 23, said he turned to the Internet as a way to ease his mind and answer questions regarding his immigration status.
“My parents had some of the answers but they were very reluctant to explain the gravity of the situation to me, it was as if they were ashamed—like they had failed me,” he said.
Escalante found a forum, dreamact.info, which provides resources for undocumented youth. The site planned to expand and launch a national resource center after the failure of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that fall in 2007.
“It just seemed so captivating to me, and I said I’ll become involved and volunteer,” he said. “The mindset was to allow a space for people who come to us, anonymous or otherwise, to give them the information or provide them with some sort of avenue to provide the information with no risk and without asking any questions.”
As social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have gained prominence in the public eye, Escalante and others like him have turned to the Internet as a platform to spread immigrant rights activism and awareness. Escalante is currently a part of DreamActivist.org, an online resource network by and for undocumented youth.
“The more I got involved with it, the more I gained an appreciation for this whole idea, or notion that we are able to use technology to spread a social movement without a huge budget or without us trying to cross every state,” he said.
Escalante on online networks
The web site encourages undocumented youth to tell their story, while providing information and applications for immigration legislation such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which grants work permits to qualifying undocumented youth and allows them to remain in the United States for a limited period of time. Unlike the DREAM Act, which would provide a path towards permanent residency, DACA provides reprieve for only two years after an individual’s date of approval. After two years, individuals must apply to renew their deferred action status.
As President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators prepare a plan for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, immigrant rights organizations are using social media as a tool to quickly connect the undocumented community on a national scale.
“We use social media very intensely,” said Celso Mireles, online strategy coordinator for United We Dream, the largest national network for undocumented youth. “One of the main things we engage people through in social media is the End Our Pain program.”
The program draws mobilization online to call attention to current deportation cases with the intent of stopping undocumented youth from being deported. The web site features a case questionnaire and application where undocumented persons detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can seek to have United We Dream take on their case.
Mireles said the program is just one example of the power of online networks. Last month, when the mother and brother of prominent immigrant activist Erika Andiola were detained by ICE, the immigrant rights community quickly mobilized online to call on the agency to release her family using Twitter hashtags #weareandiola and #somosandiola to call attention to her case. Andiola’s family members were released promptly the next day.
Mireles, who just received deferred action, added that while there was some vulnerability in sharing your immigration status online, the risks were outweighed by the benefits.
Mireles on being undocumented and unafraid
“Because she was so prominent in the DREAM movement she was able to mobilize a national network,” said Mireles. “I think without social media that would not have happened.”
“At the end of the day that the network we have built knows who you are and if something were to happen to you, that would act as a safety net should you be picked up,” said Escalante.
Escalante on Andiola and social media
Escalante added that the benefits of an online community went beyond the practical; there was a huge emotional component as well.
“A lot of times what people forget is that we use this as a coping mechanism, or at least we used to in the beginning because we didn’t know another undocumented person,” said Escalante. “We didn’t have network of support, it was actually very hard. Social media was kind of their for you.”
When Escalante first became involved with immigration rights forums and later Dream Activist, he was faced with his own dilemma on how much of his identity to share.
“In 2008 I started using my first name, in 2009 I started using my first and last name but I never alluded to the fact that I was undocumented,” he said. “By 2011 I was so sick and tired of trying to explain to people who I am, who I was and why I was affected and said you know what, it’s really time for me to let this go and face the issue with a strong face.”
“I am who I am”
“There is that fear in the beginning of using your real name,” said Mireles. “I used a pseudonym in the beginning—I used Sergio. But we realized there’s more power in really being unafraid and that means letting people know who you are.”
Escalante said his decision has made him more confident.
“It goes back to that sense of confidence in the community that people crave often because you were silent, you were sitting in the shadows and not given a seat at the table, so for us to come out as undocumented and declare our status doesn’t just empower yourself and our community but also people who look up to you and aspire to help this movement,” he said.