By Cristina Cigarroa
I started interviewing undocumented students and allies to better understand the immigrant rights movement in 2011. At the time, I was pursuing both a law degree and a masters degree in Latin American Studies. I soon recognized that in order to advocate for immigrants, I also had to learn more about their individual stories. Specifically, I wanted to understand how immigration law directly shaped their lives. I learned a valuable lesson: that narrative had the potential to humanize immigration–an issue that is too often reduced to statistics, generalizations, and stereotypes– and advance social change.
The young people I interviewed used their own stories to press for rights. With extraordinary courage, they demonstrated that, even without papers, they would pursue their goals and raise their voices. They held elected officials accountable and urged them to support immigrants, even though they themselves could not vote. Many shared their stories with the public and through the media. In so doing, they raised awareness of the everyday struggles of undocumented young people and their families across the United States. They demonstrated to the world that they existed, that they, too, were visible and belonged.
On June 15, 2012, immigrants proved they could be agents of change. On this date, the Obama administration announced the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that would provide work authorization and protection against deportation to young people who arrived to the United States before the age of 16 and met certain continuous presence and educational requirements. The Obama administration’s decision to implement DACA was not a spontaneous one. Rather, DACA was the product of years of activism on the part of undocumented young people and allies.
I provided legal representation to DACA applicants during my first year as a lawyer. I witnessed how DACA changed the lives of immigrants who grew up in the United States. DACA recipients could obtain social security numbers and drivers licenses. They could apply for paid internships that matched their career aspirations. They could work to help their families and to pay their college tuition. They no longer had to fear driving through checkpoints, and could now travel throughout the United States. Many could visit family that lived along the southern border. The anguish over whether they could work in a career of choice after graduation dissipated. A work permit made the possibility of a professional career a reality.
As an immigration attorney and advocate, I am dismayed and angered by the possibility that the DACA program could be terminated under the Trump administration. DACA is a reminder of the talent and contributions of immigrants. Yet President-Elect Trump promised to eliminate DACA, build a wall, carry out deportation raids, and prevent Muslims from emigrating to the U.S. These proposals are an attack on the dignity of the immigrant community and their aspirations for engaged citizenship. They are also a rejection of their immeasurable contributions to this great nation.
In the weeks following the election, I have discovered hope and a call to action through acts of solidarity. Advocates and activists have united to form coalitions and task forces to help immigrant communities. In my own hometown Austin, Texas, I have found a renewed energy by participating in #Texas Here to Stay, a coalition dedicated to providing access to legal information and services. I have also tapped into this energy by attending meetings with students. Across the nation, universities and colleges, including the University of Texas, have united and declared support for DACA and their undocumented students. University leaders such as Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of Homeland Security and current president of the University of California, have written letters to Trump urging him to preserve the DACA program.
Now more than ever, we need to use our stories to advocate for change. Testimonials, as DACA activists have shown us, are an effective tool to educate our communities and leaders about immigration. With this lesson in mind, I along with my husband, Eddie Shore, present our blog “Jorge Washington” as an invitation to share personal narratives of activism and advocacy. If you are interested in sharing your story, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you.