When you know them, how could you not be for them? A Valentine’s Day letter on advocating for my undocumented loved ones.
Growing up in Miami and now working at Emerson Collective, I have gotten to know dozens of undocumented immigrants all over the country. From talking with farm workers in the Central Valley of California, to canvassing in Nevada with undocumented and asylum-seeking organizers, to visiting the classrooms of DACAmented teachers, to marching and demonstrating with Dreamers, to doing intake meetings with detained immigrants in five different detention centers, to touring with the Inside Out/ Dreamers project, I can say with full confidence that every undocumented person I have ever met is worthy of love. Each has an incredible story, typically knows way more about policy and how our government works than most American citizens do, and contributes to and represents American values.
In some ways “undocumented” is an arbitrary label — you can’t really tell a Dreamer apart from a citizen, except on paper. On the other hand, that status can dictate a person’s fundamental life experience. Sometimes it’s frustrating to learn that some Americans don’t even know what DACA is. It reminds me that legal status means so much to nearly a million Dreamers — and so little to most citizens who take it for granted. DACA allowed my friends to finally get driver’s licenses, to apply to certain colleges and scholarships, to get work permits, to stop fearing deportation. But most importantly, DACA allowed their dreams and hard work to dictate their prospects in life — instead of a piece of paper. Give them that status. They’ve earned it, they’ve fought for it, they deserve it.
As a Brazilian immigrant who is lucky enough to have American citizenship, it’s important I use my voice to stand hand in hand and advocate for those 11 million who are being kept voiceless by our government’s inability to pass legislation despite overwhelming support by the American public. I invite you to meet some of the most impactful people in my life, who also happen to be Dreamers.
Paola — My neighbor and a Brazilian like me
Paola and her family were the first undocumented people I ever met. She was my childhood neighbor and Brazilian like me. We both came to the U.S. as kids, played the same games together, and both attended local public schools in Miami. Paola did nothing wrong nor did I do anything special to merit our differences in citizenship status. But those differences have shaped who we are and now feel glaring. I had an American passport, so I was able to travel to Brazil for a few months every summer until I was 18. Since coming to the U.S. at age six, Paola has not left the United States. Even when her dad was deported to Brazil and unable to re-enter the U.S., she has not been able to visit him — a painful separation I could not imagine bearing. Ironically, one could argue that my American citizenship allowed me to be “more” Brazilian.
I didn’t know Paola was undocumented until she told me after we graduated from college. It was difficult to begin thinking of her as an undocumented person, because she was my neighbor, my classmate, and walked alongside me in everything I did. She now works for a women’s health clinic in Colorado, assisting women in need, and I am so proud of her.
Adrian — “Dreamer Bae”
Adrian and I met at the Inside Out /Dreamers tour in Miami and then again in Washington D.C. When he is not working towards his master’s degree or being an activist, (protesting, lobbying, being interviewed on the news, attending the State of the Union as Rep. Curbelo’s guest), Adrian is a professional tennis coach. He modeled for FILA and worked with Federer to boot.
Adrian and I once spent 24 hours sitting next to each other on a bus ride from Washington D.C. to Miami. Other than watching the movie Get Out and taking a few naps, we never stopped talking. I would agree with Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez who says Adrian is “a great guy and sooooo handsome!!!” Adrian taught me how exhausting it can be to advocate for your dignity, for your place in this country, for so long, and know that “success” still won’t mean equality. Adrian is 29 years old and has been in the U.S. since he was three years old. Even if the Dream Act were to pass this year, the earliest this activist, teacher, and organizer would be eligible to vote in a national election would be at age 45. The Dream Act has proven to be an enormous challenge to pass, which is disappointing because honestly, it’s not even good enough. Dreamers and their families deserve better.
Priscilla — a teacher and caretaker
I first read about Priscilla in a Teach for America magazine article, “On the Border, a DACAmented Science Teacher Fights On.” The article is pretty long (over 2,000 words) so the article tab remained open and unread on my browser for a few days. When I finally took the time to read Priscilla’s story, I cried. Her story was so moving I knew it needed to be retold and amplified in video form, so I worked on making that happen.
My team and I spent two days interviewing and filming Priscilla in a Texas border town and then continued to work with — and be in awe of her — for months to come. I’ll let her voice and this video speak for themselves, but I hope you feel as I do, that it would be an incredible loss for our country and her community if we say she and DACAmented teachers like her are not welcome here.
Guillermo — Stanford classmate
Guillermo and I were both engineering students at Stanford Univeristy. I graduated in 2014 and he in 2016. At the time, he was one of only three undocumented students on campus. The student group Guillermo was most involved in was the Stanford Solar Car Project. Every two years, the team designs, builds and races a solar car across the Australian Outback in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Even though Guillermo was the team lead, he was unable to leave the country and travel with his team to compete in Australia because of his immigration status. Imagine putting in countless hours of work for months on a project that you know you won’t be able to physically witness come to life. Eventually, he was able to apply for Advance Parole and travel to Australia. He should’ve been able to travel all along!
Thanks to his family’s immigration experiences and his experiences growing up in a Texas border community, Guillermo has kept immigration a constant part of his education and volunteering, and he hopes to do lifelong work in the field. He’s now a graduate student studying computational social science and public policy. Last summer, he worked as an interpreter and legal aid at the Dilley Detention Facility in Texas; which I visited and made a video about. These detention centers are typically run by private prison corporations and strategically located in remote areas of rural Texas, where it’s both easier to hide what goes on and harder for volunteers to reach. The mothers and children (yes, babies) detained here with no guaranteed legal representation or clear path forward (some could be detained for years) are typically asylum seekers who have done nothing other than cross a border fleeing horrific violence. Hearing these intimate and traumatic stories first hand, has made me want to speak truth to power when I hear border crossers being vilified.
Rani* — A colleague-turned-friend
Rani and I worked together for a summer. She is always smiling, ready to speak her mind, and doesn’t hesitate to tackle anything that comes her way. On the last day of her internship, our team from work took Rani out to karaoke. As the night went on and we all felt more comfortable singing in front of each other, Rani queued up one of her go-to karaoke ballads, “Country Girl” by Luke Bryan. She sang along and stomp-danced to every word with gusto. Everyone in the room was blown away. Even my “roll tide”-cheering colleague from Alabama leaned over to me and commented, “Rani is the most American person in the room.”
Rani and I got to travel together for work, which was a blast, so as soon as a pathway to citizenship passes for her, we look forward to traveling internationally together.
*Rani, like most Dreamers, is not public about her DACA status so I have changed her name and occluded some details.
There are so many more Dreamers I could rave about. (I would love to have a Nancy Pelosi moment where I talk about Dreamers for a record-breaking 8+ hours in Congress!) If you’ve never had the privilege of spending time with Dreamers, then I encourage you learn about them via other means. The Dream is Now is a great place to start. It was the first and best documentary I’ve ever seen about Dreamers. You can also follow Dreamers on Twitter including Erika Andiola, Juan Escalante, Gaby Pacheco, Astrid Silva, UndocuBlack, Undocumedia, UnitedWeDream.org, and Jose Antonio Vargas.
Thank you to the brave and inspiring Dreamers who let me share their stories here, to the allies and mentors I look up to, and to Kerri Pinchuk, my favorite editor to work with.