Carlos Rojas Álvarez pictured in a living room
Carlos Rojas Álvarez is an activist for undocumented youth Steve Holt

"This is the exact moment we needed to launch us into fighting for more permanent protection."

Carlos Rojas Álvarez, a Massachusetts-based advocate for undocumented youth, is a special projects consultant for Youth on Board, and a founding member of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. He spoke to CityLab about the challenges facing young immigrants right now.

Yesterday, a group of us was sitting in a circle with undocumented youth at the Student Immigrant Movement headquarters in downtown Boston—which continues to be a free and open space for any undocumented youth to come and join the movement family—listening to people talk about how they feel.

One young woman, who is extraordinary—she’s at Northeastern as an undocumented student—said she’d been asked by a reporter, “Are you scared now?” And she didn’t know how to answer that question. She said, “I’ve been terrified all of my life.” Being undocumented feels like hell, and it also feels like the longest running joke ever.

When we were strategizing about what we’re going to do now that President Trump rolled back the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, one undocumented person said we need to go out in the street and organize—cautiously. I don’t think I’ve heard that word used in immigrant youth organizing spaces until yesterday. We actually do have to be cautious now, and we have to be smarter. The administration is targeting immigrant youth activists. Just a few months ago, an immigrant youth activist in the South spoke, and then was detained at her home right after the rally in an act of retaliation. These are the times we’re living in, and we have to take that into consideration.

At Youth on Board, I'm leading a national project called Open Doors to equip undocumented immigrant youth leaders and organizers with the tools and the skills we will need to make movements sustainable and resilient. The work of healing and learning how to build deep relationships across differences is vital to me—and vital, I think, in this current political climate. There's nothing more important to me right now than making sure our movements withstand the attacks we are facing and are about to face.

This year is the first year since coming out as undocumented that I have ever been scared to fly and reconsidered how public I am with my story. And if I’m scared about it as someone who knows their rights, who’s extremely connected to a large network of people and support systems, I can only imagine how an undocumented youth is feeling in the middle of Texas with no network and no support. These are really scary times, politically, and that has to be acknowledged publicly.

I was born in 1993 in Medellin, Colombia. I always like to say that it was and it is an incredibly beautiful city: you step outside and there are mountains everywhere. But it was very poor and in the middle of a civil war between the government and armed revolutionary forces. When I was four, one my favorite uncles was shot 19 times and was killed because of the war. That’s when my mother had to make a decision whether or not that was going to be her son’s fate. As any mother on earth would choose to do, she decided that was not going to be the case. She got this idea in her head that I was going to grow up in the United States.

When I was five, we applied for tourist visas. We did everything right: we applied for the visas, we interviewed for the visas, we were approved. In the summer of 1999, we arrived in Miami, and then we came to New York, and then Boston. I started school, I made friends, I played in the park, I dreamed about what I was going to be when I was older. (I flipped back and forth between a lawyer, a dentist, a doctor, a fireman, and a police officer.) We took family trips to the beach, to state parks, to Six Flags, to Niagara Falls. In some ways we started to build a regular life. Eighteen years later—I’m 23 now—my mother and I are still undocumented. She’s also raising a 16-year-old son who’s a U.S. citizen because he was born here, maybe a year after we arrived in the United States.

The adults around me were undocumented, working two, maybe three jobs to make ends meet. I have a really distinct memory of being seven or eight, living in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and looking out the window at the bus stop where my mom got off at 11 p.m. after work. One day, it was 11:15 and the bus wasn’t dropping her off. It was 11:30 and the bus hadn’t dropped her off. Then, it was midnight. I think most eight-or nine-year-olds would probably be a little scared or wonder what had happened to their parent, but I made the assumption that she had been deported. That was the conclusion I’d made, that I’d lost my mom, she’s never coming back. I remember starting to wail, and cry, and then she walks through the door at 12:15 and said she got caught up at work and left late. That’s the kind of childhood that undocumented people live.

I jumped into activism after the DREAM Act of 2010 had been defeated by five votes. For the first time ever, I stepped out in public and told my story as an undocumented student. When I came into the Student Immigrant Movement as a junior, there was this gap in leadership and an opportunity for new immigrant youth to lead that next crusade, which was, “OK, Congress won’t pass immigration reform, President Obama is still deporting millions of people, despite his promise not to deport DREAMers.”

I was a big part of helping to push for DACA between 2010 and 2012. The Democratic Party and Obama thought that they could get away with deporting undocumented youth and parents without being blasted. They were pointing at Republicans for not passing the DREAM Act, for not taking immigration reform seriously, for using things like border enforcement as bargaining chips—but the Democrats were continuing to allow Homeland Security to lie to the public and say, “We’re only deporting criminals,” while deporting parents and students. We decided to expose that. While the media was saying, “DREAMers aren’t getting deported,” we were down at the Massachusetts State House showing cases of undocumented youth being put into detention and being deported. And we said, “Mr. President, you can do something about this.”

We organized immigrant youth to infiltrate a campaign stop in Connecticut. The minute Obama started talking about his accomplishments, we began to stand up and hold signs that said, “You can pass administrative relief.” It completely shut down his speech until every one of us was removed.

To us, his re-election was not more important than the fact that students were getting deported. The election was not more important than the fact that mothers and fathers who had no criminal record were getting swept up by ICE, despite his public promises that those were not the people being deported. So we drove a huge wedge between rhetoric and what was happening at the time. It was a really beautiful and complex and advanced strategy that was enacted locally and across the country in an attempt to get the president to actually do something administratively.

DACA was, at the time, the biggest immigration victory that we’d seen in 26 years—and it had been won by immigrant youth.

I qualified for the DACA program but never ended up applying for it, even though I was a leader in the campaign that helped 500,000 undocumented youth across the country apply. I always had a sense that it was temporary, that it was an incredible amount of information to give the federal government. And by the time I was eligible to apply for DACA, I had figured out a way to work, to do what I love to do. So when the announcement came on Tuesday that DACA had been eliminated, it was a really bittersweet moment, because 500,000 undocumented youth had given their information to the federal government—specifically the Trump administration, where virulently racist Sherriff Clarke might take the position as head of Homeland Security. That is a really scary prospect and not to be taken lightly.

What we watched on Tuesday was the administration target a relatively small program that had given a small number of young people the chance to live and contribute to a country that is the only country we know. I’m grieving for the temporary setback and I’m also grieving for young people who are, in all likelihood, going to lose their jobs, not going to be able to pay their mortgages. And I’m also grieving for some who will also lose their lives because they don’t know what to do in the wake of this decision. This is going to have deadly consequences for people.

What we do know is we have the majority of Americans on our side. It’s a huge relief, but it’s also a huge impetus to organize like we’ve never organized before, whether it’s to reverse Trump’s decision and to keep DACA in place, or to pass a legislative solution.

This is the exact moment we needed to launch us into fighting for more permanent protection—not just for undocumented youth, who are seen as worthy and deserving, but for our parents, on whose shoulders we stand.

One thing that we as a movement are very concerned about is the way that many of our allies, who may be very well-intentioned, have tried to come to our defense by throwing our parents under the bus. We’re starting to hear rhetoric like, “They came here through no fault of their own” or “they were brought here as children, they didn’t know any better,” or “punishing the child for the sins of the father.” We DREAMers would not be here without our parents. We would not have been able to do what we’ve been able to pull off politically and legislatively.

President Trump messed with the wrong crew. In our immigrant community, DREAMers are the most adapted, the most connected, the most looked-up-to—and that means we have a huge responsibility to defend not only each other, but all other undocumented immigrants.

There’s a reason why 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country are able to work, are able to go to school, are the parents of children who grow up to go to college, who grow up to be doctors, who grow up to be nurses, who grow up to be lawyers, who grow up to be business owners. There’s a reason why any restaurant you step into, any store you step into, any street you walk on, has been cleaned, has been built, has been maintained by undocumented immigrants. It’s because we have an incredibly strong support network for each other.

Here in Massachusetts and in other places, immigrant youth can start building real places of sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. I was glad to see Mayor Walsh come out so strongly in support of undocumented immigrants and establish Boston as a sanctuary city. Now, our job is to be sure that that actually becomes a reality. That way, we’re ensuring that whatever comes down from the administration, that we have built the shields and the defense for the immigrant community.

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