- Photo by Lance Yamamoto
- Juan Prieto and Diana Diaz are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.
Juan Prieto smiled bashfully as the crowd of about 15 people applauded. Prieto would be intimidating, what with his imposing frame. But he slouched, and there was worry on his face as he began to speak. He stands at around 6 feet, maybe more, and was wearing a denim jacket, black-rimmed glasses, and white ear gauges big enough to put your pinky through. He looked up and down, scratched his nose, and then introduced himself to the protesters outside the West County Detention facility in Richmond.
"A lot of times, we focus on the poor Dreamer or the poor undocumented youth: 'We should save them,'" he said. "But meanwhile, we have places like this," he added, pointing to the detention center's stone walls. "While you're protecting the more Americanized of us, you're allowing everyone else to get deported."
After the Trump administration announced last year that it was dismantling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), Prieto and other immigrant groups sprang into action. While mainstream Democrats have focused on saving DACA and protecting the people enrolled in it, Prieto and members of other immigrant rights' groups in the East Bay are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not just gradual concessions.
Prieto was at the protest last fall to speak against what he calls "the Dreamer narrative." In his view, DACA was built on a meritocracy — one that elevates immigrants who have learned English, assimilated, and even found success in the United States. They're commonly referred to as "Dreamers," based on the DREAM Act, a proposal that would have provided protections similar to those of DACA for young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children but was never passed by Congress.
Prieto isn't opposed to DACA protections or these young immigrants' accomplishments. Instead, he argues that the program only protects those who came into the country as children — currently, nearly 700,000 people — and ignores the 11 million other undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Prieto has been involved with Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education (RISE) at UC Berkeley, which, along with other groups like the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA), the East Bay Youth Justice Alliance, and Faith in Action, has been fighting not just to save DACA but for what has been referred to as a "Clean Dream Act." It would create a clear path to citizenship without including provisions that harm the larger immigrant community.
The groups' main tactic so far has been to publicly pressure members of Congress into supporting their initiatives. They have called out local and national politicians through social media and held protests in their offices or at events, like a September event that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held in San Francisco. It's a strategy they've been using since then-President Obama began to work on the Dream Act, and they believe it has the best chance of success.
But they face many obstacles. They acknowledge that it's much harder to enact reform under the current right-wing administration. And locally, some activists outside of these groups say they're not getting enough backing from their community to fully mobilize.
Diana Diaz, youth organizer at the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, said that from the school district to the board of supervisors, there is a lack of support in Contra Costa County to help the undocumented community. Diaz is currently under DACA status (at least for the time being).
Valeria, a student at Santa Clara University, has been undocumented since 2011, when she arrived at the age of 16. The Express agreed to not use Valeria's last name due to her immigration status. Unlike other young activists, Valeria is focused on passing her classes and applying to graduate school during these uncertain times rather than loudly marching or organizing. But she hopes that a full immigration overhaul will include people like her and her family, who don't qualify for programs like DACA.
Like many immigrants, Valeria, Diaz, and Prieto have led lives that are inherently political, and their stories have often been filled with trauma. But a critical part of their movement is a feeling of empowerment within the young, undocumented community.
"That powerlessness I feel comes from working within a system that wants me to feel like that," Prieto said to the crowd. "But when I think beyond that system, I'm boundless."
On Sept. 5, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered an end to the DACA program. Put in place by the Obama administration in 2012, the program protects immigrants who entered the country as children from deportation and allows them to work and study in the United States.
As part of the order to end the program, Trump gave Congress six months to pass some type of reform that would replace DACA before protections begin to phase out in March.
But earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco halted Trump's plan to phase out DACA, ruling that there was "no reasoned explanation" for the administration's decision. Alsup's ruling allows current DACA recipients to renew their work permits but doesn't require the federal government to issue new permits to young people who have not yet enrolled in DACA.
Late last week, the Trump Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Alsup's decision. And the federal government shut down last weekend after Congressional Republicans and President Trump refused to include immigration reform in a continuing resolution to keep the government open. The government reopened on Tuesday after Senate Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to continue discussions on a DACA deal.