Underground, Undocumented, Unafraid: Students Lead the Way for Activism and Advocacy

It is a precarious time for the 800,000 immigrant youths who have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and the largest concentration of those students is in the community colleges of California.

“We have a moral responsibility to reach out to these students, to support this new generation of leaders,” says Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

Wong, who teaches courses in labor studies and Asian American studies, told CCA members recently the number of immigrants in community colleges grew greatly after the hotly contested California Dream Act, allowing in-state tuition to those with no legal status aid, was passed in 2011.

At the same time, student activists were fighting for DACA, which allows those who were brought to the United States illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit. Nationally, student immigrant leaders declared they were “undocumented and unafraid,” and demanded the government stop deporting them during their path to citizenship. They said Congress and the Supreme Court failed them, so they were going to take on then-President Barack Obama because, although he said he supports Dreamers, he let them be deported.

Wong says he remembers thinking, “Who are they fooling? They can’t vote, can’t get a driver’s license, yet they’re going to take on the president of the United States?” And then he heard students say, “Yes, we take a risk every time we speak. We face greater risk not to fight injustice.”

They did. And they won. In June 2012 DACA was announced, and that meant a 40 percent increase in wages for undocumented youth who could come out of the underground economy. The political climate has changed, and Wong says he’s concerned a Supreme Court decision would end DACA, plunging hundreds of hundreds of thousands into poverty.

“Those of us who have citizenship, our responsibility is to stand with our students. They’ve fought for and won so many battles. But today, families are separated, ICE is going into hospitals and onto college campuses — and deporting people.”

Wong’s passion for immigrant rights grew when he taught the first class in the country on DACA. His students’ stories became a book, Underground Undergrads, published in 2008, which allowed them to speak out about their experiences. His students took pains to ensure no one could be identified.

“They were brought here as children and are being criminalized for something over which they had no control,” he says. “The K-12 system, by law, treats all children equally, yet when they graduate the world is upside down. These students can no longer work, and the whole campaign — the ‘undocumented and unafraid’ — emerged as a voice of conscience.”

When the immigrant youth movement declared they were undocumented and unafraid, his students did, too, and they started to use real names of real people. There are now three books in the series: Underground Undergrads, Undocumented and Unafraid and Dreams Deported. All the stories are written by college students, and the proceeds help pay for students to attend UCLA’s Dream Summer.

Started in 2011, Dream Summer goals are to build the next generation of immigrant rights leaders through leadership development, an intergenerational, cross-racial framework to address issues impacting immigrant communities, and the creation of safe and healing places. There are now over 600 graduates.

Hugo Romero, who was brought to the U.S. when he was 4 years old, is a Dream Summer alum who “learned community college welcomes all” after his mother was arrested and deported. He worked and went to Fullerton College while raising his two younger sisters. Friends and the community college helped financially, and emergency funds from the alumni association were soon granted. He then discovered Dream Summer, and “it was transformative.” Romero, who works at the UCLA Labor Center, says, “Many who I mentor today are scared of uncertainty of times, of parents being deported. I’ve been there. Through community and support of folks like you, we can get by.”

Steve Li’s parents moved from China to Peru soon after he was born. They came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. After the family was arrested, his parents were returned to China, but since he didn’t speak Chinese, authorities were planning to send him to Peru, even though he hadn’t been there since he was 10. He spent 90 days in a private prison in Arizona until University of San Francisco classmates and the city of San Francisco freed him. A medical doctor, Li has started the #Health4All campaign to provide undocumented immigrants with access to health care. “I was not born in California — California was born in me,” he says.

Wong notes the facilities where arrested immigrants are housed get $200 per night for incarceration. “The only one who profits is the private prison industry,” he says, adding that detainees and their families are charged for the use of email and for basics.

He encourages CCA members to help create safe spaces on campuses, where ICE raids are not welcome and there is no sharing of data and no raids on campus, and to stop collusion between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The California TRUST Act does that. “Local law enforcement are not ICE agents,” Wong says, noting local policymakers are trying to undo the TRUST Act and strip police protection from immigrants. He shares the story of a battered woman who called police for help, and they arrested her and started deportation procedures.

“We are a nation of immigrants. The reality is immigrants built this nation over generations,” Wong says. “We, as educators, have the responsibility to support all our students.”


About Dream Summer


 Dream Summer Videos

Dream Summer 2017: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi7NbhCT9Gs&t=54s

“Dream Summer” Alumni: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MHbOvotTfI&t=4s

Dream Summer 2011: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yogg_bV8Dew&feature=share