Photo collage showing undocumented activists marching against prominent politicians
The fact that undocumented immigrants are the driving force pushing immigration rights forward isn’t widely acknowledged. (Art by Evan Solano)

Immigrant Activists Have Given Me More Hope Than the Democratic Party

Undocumented immigrants are risking arrest and deportation to push for real, uncompromised immigration reform — regardless of which political party is in power.

For legal reasons, I can’t publicly talk about how I earned money after I graduated high school. Not to say I was a mafia boss or anything; it was more like waking up at 5 in the morning and scrubbing toilets. During one of those early mornings in 2011, I picked up a newspaper and read about Joaquin Luna Jr. — A young Tejano facing the same grim prospects as me, undocumented and feeling hopeless about his future. Luna Jr.’s family said he became despondent about being unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a civil engineer, and soon after killed himself. The Dream Act, which would’ve given both Luna Jr. & me a pathway to citizenship, failed to pass the Senate in 2010 because five Democrats voted against it.

Harrowed by his trajectory from our shared experience, I followed this story closely. Luna Jr. became a poster child for the undocumented youth movement, which soon began pressuring then-President Obama to use his executive powers to defer deportations. Two undocumented immigrants from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) occupied his re-election campaign office in Denver and began a hunger strike. It wasn’t until activists led sit-ins at Obama’s campaign offices nationwide that he announced DACA on June 15th, 2012. Direct actions like these, in which undocumented immigrants risked arrest & deportation, are the reason I’ve since been able to work legally & publicly without fear.

I came to this country undocumented in 1992, when I was three years old. Since then, there have been four administrations, half of which were Democratic, with both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama entering their presidencies with Democrat-controlled Congresses. And yet, to this day, I still don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Every election cycle, voters are implored to vote Democrat to spare undocumented immigrants like myself from the unmitigated cruelty imposed by Republicans. This may be done with good intentions, but it is done at the cost of depicting undocumented immigrants as helpless and at the mercy of the benevolence of the Democratic Party. In reality, it’s been grassroots undocumented-led organizations, not a political party, that have given me the feeling that I can make a difference. 

When President Trump announced his intention to repeal DACA in 2017, Chuck Schumer & Nancy Pelosi began negotiating keeping it in exchange for increased border security measures. (Democrats have repeatedly taken an approach that emphasizes undocumented youth as exceptional and innocent while criminalizing their parents.) A week later, while giving a speech in San Francisco, Pelosi was interrupted by undocumented youth organizers with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA). They confronted her over her decision to negotiate their lives without their input with chants such as “Nothing About Us Without Us” & “All 11 Million.” The self determination of undocumented immigrants, working outside the law and outside of the Democratic Party, has helped ensure that the Dream Act — which has stagnated in Congress for nearly two decades — might one day be passed in a form that rejects the imagined binary of good vs. deserving and bad vs. criminal undocumented immigrants. 

But the fact that undocumented immigrants are the driving force pushing immigration rights forward isn’t widely acknowledged, particularly by those in power in the Democratic party. Cecilia Muñoz, who served as the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, actually claims the opposite in regards to activists granted DACA status. Last year she tweeted “The advocacy mattered. But the protests at campaign offices were actually an obstacle. For the folks making the decision, and preparing to defend it in court if necessary, the protests created a problem which almost knocked the policy off the rails.” It’s a bold claim from an administration that doesn’t have much to show for itself on immigration. It also doesn’t give me much hope that a Biden administration will be any more progressive on immigration: It appointed Muñoz, who oversaw the deportation of more than 2 million immigrants during the Obama administration, as a senior transition advisor.

Biden’s VP pick, Kamala Harris, has positioned herself as a champion for immigrants. A daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, she’s made her own personal history a part of her political narrative. But it’s a huge pivot from her career in policy-making: When I was a teenager living in the Bay Area, she publicly supported then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s program that reported undocumented juveniles to ICE. As a result, over 100 undocumented minors were transfered into ICE custody, some arrested for as little as stealing 46 cents. When San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors amended the policy to be more lenient, Harris disapproved, saying, I think that [the Board of Supervisors’ ruling] would be in conflict with federal law, and we have to follow the law. We have to follow that law.” This adherence to the law and doing things the so-called ‘right way’ doesn’t ring true to my experience being undocumented. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote for Biden. A Trump victory would put me and every other undocumented immigrant in jeopardy for deportation. But it’s important to acknowledge that the gains Democratic politicians have made in protecting immigrant rights in recent years weren’t due to the kindness of their own hearts — they were due to undocumented organizers forcing their hands. The Abolish ICE movement gained traction in 2018 after the controversy of the family separation policy at the border. This year’s Democratic presidential candidates were quick to jump in the fray to score political points, yet by the time the primary started, the topic fell by the wayside. 

Immigrant advocacy groups such as Mijente & CIYJA published platforms with details on how to eliminate the agency. Yet both groups have said that none of the candidates who have said they want to abolish or restructure ICE have come to them to talk about the issue. Reducing the fight for immigrants rights to voting, which undocumented immigrants can’t do, is what gives Biden the confidence to tell an immigrant activist who questioned Obama’s deportation record to go vote for Trump. 

Although DACA has survived a Supreme Court ruling this year, the Trump administration has decided it will reject new applications. Undocumented youth graduating high school will now be facing the same grim prospects I did, an uncertain future and risk of deportation. By the time I graduated high school, electoral politics had continuously let me down, and building a life for myself seemed impossible, so I retreated into apathy and despair. Now, even in the worst of times, I’m able to imagine a better future because of grassroots undocumented organizers who gain power & agency through collective solidarity. This election, no matter how it plays out, I’ll be doing what’s served me best so far: following the lead of undocumented immigrants who can’t vote. 

Johan Miranda is a stand up comedian from the Bay Area. He lives in L.A. where he’s very grateful to have rent control.