Scared Silent No More

September 16, 2011

Youth Rising | a biweekly blog spotlighting action organizations and the inspiring youth who lead them.

DREAM Activists are out and they're organized.

Juan – a 22-year-old college senior in southeast Florida who asked that I use only his first name – used to spend hours searching online for help with his status as an undocumented immigrant student.

It was lonely and exhausting, but he didn't know where else to turn. He feared that using his real name or asking his college career center for help “would send a red flag and ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] would come for me,” he says. 

Those early attempts to find answers started Juan on a journey that ultimately put him at the head of a youth-led fight to pass the Dream Act.

From "Scared Silent" to the Forefront

Eleven years ago, Juan came to America from Venezuela with his parents and two younger brothers. When their lawyer failed to meet a deadline on his parents’ work visas, their case was closed and they were shut out of any appeal to their immigration status, he says.

He continued to live undocumented until it was time to apply for college in 2007. “I came face to face with my immigration status when my university said I had to pay out-of-state tuition,” he told me. Today, that means paying more than three times as much as in-state students.

Juan began posting his online requests for help more fervently. “Eventually out of sheer interest, someone invited me to join an online chat with people who were brainstorming about how to start a resource network for undocumented students. At the time, it was unheard of. If you Googled ‘dream act’ back in the day, Google would turn up four results and some copies of the bill,” he says.

Like many youth rising up against educational roadblocks, Juan didn't stay silenced for long. He is now the Communications Director of where he trains others on how to speak to the media and fields requests from around the world. DreamActivist is an online hub that connects youth with the movement to pass the DREAM Act in Congress, and to “pursue the enactment of other forms of legislation that aim to mend the broken immigration system,” according to its website. In addition, it provides individual help seekers with resources and referrals.  It currently has over 250 members, over 11,000 followers on Twitter (@dreamact), dozens of active discussion topics, and receives over 1,000 website views per day.

As I talked with Juan, I realized that his is a story of coming far, but not feeling that the work is close to being done.  How he found his voice is an example that plays out around the country among emerging activists.

In the beginning, Juan says he was conditioned to stay quiet: “You have this mini family reunion and swear to god that you won’t tell anyone. You shut your mouth and don’t say anything. You have all this pressure on you. You say, ‘I don’t have the same opportunities, the same protections. If I get mugged or in a fight I won’t call the police.’ You’re oppressing yourself because of this fear. For the longest time, since I knew about my immigration status I was mum about it, I would not tell a soul.”

When he came across an opportunity to join other activists on Capitol Hill, he ran with it. “I told my parents, ‘Look, I’m going to DC. I’m going to advocate for this.’  I said, ‘If I don’t do this, I might not have another chance.’ They thought I was insane.”  he says,  “I went from talking to people online, with no last names and never seeing a picture of anyone, and here I am booking a ticket to Washington – to a place I’ve only been one other time in my life…I told my story in front a crowd, I cried, I experienced fear.”

Since taking the leadership role at DreamActivist, he has continued to speak out. In recent weeks, his audience has gotten larger and more mainstream: he has fielded calls from the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

In a recent phone call, Juan talked about finding his voice. “I think a lot of it comes from exposure. What helped me was creating an online presence, having a name, deciding how many details I wanted to put out there.” 

Inside DreamActivist's Fight for Equality

Through a forum post on DreamActivist, Juan wrote “We run this .org from pennies and our free time (Im literally typing this from an air mattress in Atlanta as I organize migrant communities on the ground) which makes it a bit difficult to knock on door to door.”  He echoed this to me when we spoke: “The fact of the matter is we run this whole thing from the internet, from our phones. I check my email from everywhere.”

The DreamActivist network is coordinated by five leaders all in their early 20s and in states as far-flung as Michigan, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. They decide on their tactics via “consensus and suggestion...We’re very much against setting a hierarchy.”  Said Juan, “We’ll take things case by case and say, ‘How do we do it?’ There is a lot of back and forth, and a lot of collaboration. The group is intentional about working through consensus.” Behind the scenes, “Google provides us a great collaboration method and pool our information at no cost.”  

Given that the website is a hub, it makes sense that its leaders believe firmly in the power of collaboration. DreamActivist is a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. Juan remarked that “collaboration is key” and listed three ways that is benefits them:  It connects interested people to other organizations, it helps delegate loads of work, and it opens up opportunities to move forward as a movement.

All of the DreamActivist leaders have other responsibilities. “We do a lot of stuff that people don’t really highlight us for. We do them when we should be doing other work. It becomes tough for us to manage everything – some of us have full time jobs, or go to school.”

Juan believes that DreamActivist’s biggest asset is in the way it connects and links youth in undocumented student movement. “In its essence, its purpose is served.” He shared one success story about a mother in Arizona who was about to be deported after a workplace raid. Using their network, “we had a week to put [a response] together. We stopped her deportation. Things just happen, they really do. I credit that to people who don’t sleep.”

He revealed that it has been a problem to keep the movement as a unified whole, even within DreamActivists’ ranks. “The deeper that you dig, not just within this organization but the whole movement,  you’ll see fragmentation. A lot of people have their own tactics and have their own perceptions on how to conduct movements.” 

For the future of DreamActivist, Juan is hopeful they will have an office. This would be the ultimate answer to a question he gets regularly: Where are you guys located?  More than that, he feels that the network would continue to grow with greater infrastructure. “Just the knowledge that you have someone alongside you working as hard as you are is comforting.  We don’t see each other often. It’s easy to forget [you’re not alone].” 

Advice for Other Young Activists

Juan is of two minds when speaking about the relevancy of age in the undocumented student movement. On the one hand, he says, “We’re 20-year-olds. We’re not perfect. Sometimes we don’t meet deadlines. We set them for ourselves – sometimes we meet them.”  

On the other hand, being young in this movement is essential. He spoke about earlier immigration fights that used the Dream Act as political scraps. “Were comprehensive immigration reform to fail, the Dream Act would have failed too. was the first to point this out. We were outraged.”  Juan stated, “For the youth to get their own stage is one of the most wonderful things. Up to this point, we were just children and people said we are cute. But now we’re cute and getting arrested. Now when we say it, we mean it.”

Juan has met a number of students through his involvement in the network. Not all have the same staying power.

“A lot of people say ‘I’m gonna become an activist’ but that’s just not how it works. There’s a lot of self-discovery that comes with it,” he says.

How to make it more likely to succeed? Juan recommends treating matters “with urgency but also with self-care. A lot of people don’t take care of themselves at all. Lack of sleep is a minor thing. I’ve seen some of our members go a whole day eating gum.”

This is particularly challenging for young people who lack access to mental health care. Juan himself felt besieged by his responsibilities earlier this year. “I had to go to the mental health authority at my university because I couldn’t do it. It was the stress, the underlying schoolwork, tests, deadlines for DreamActivist stuff, applications.”

Take it slowly, and pace yourself, he says.

Measuring Progress

Given how far Juan has come as an advocate for youth, I asked him if he ever looked in the rear-view mirror on his progress.

“I don’t. I’m faced with many roles; a son and brother, a student, and an activist. I keep all those three identities split from each other. My university doesn’t know anything. I came here to study, and that’s what I’m doing.” 

Juan’s story parallels that of his unsuspecting mentor, Juan Gomez, an undocumented student from Miami who made it all the way to Georgetown. Mr. Gomez’s struggles have also resurfaced. Despite graduating magna cum laude, at last word he hadn’t seen his parents in over 40 months (they were deported) and was worried about getting approval to transfer a student visa into a work visa.

I'm struck by the power of people like Juan and networks like DreamActivist. The U.S. might just be in the midst of an Immigrant Spring (or fall).  It remains to be seen whether the DREAM Act will be reintroduced and whether it can pass in Congress, but whatever happens, Juan and others will still be the youth voice moving forward.

"Equality and justice are so engrained in our youth activist culture; just because we got ours, doesn’t mean other people can’t get theirs,” Juan says.

Eddy Ameen is an editorial contributor to SparkAction and pre-doctoral psychology candidate. He has counseled teens in the D.C. juvenile justice system, consulted on national policy, strategic planning, and training projects, and formerly directed the Miami homeless youth program, StandUp For Kids.

Eddy Ameen