Carlos Amador emigrated with his family from Mexico in 1999 at age 14 and lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for almost 13 years until he recently received conditional permanent residency. Higher education for someone like him seemed like an impossible dream when Carlos finished high school. But he was determined to make it happen. As he pursued his undergraduate degree he would go straight from working alongside his parents cleaning houses in upscale Southern California neighborhoods to his classes, never giving up. Carlos now holds his master’s degree in social welfare from the University of California-Los Angeles. All along the way he has been a leader in the undocumented immigrant youth movement and one of its most outspoken voices for change. Today Carlos is both the Project Coordinator of the Dream Resource Center at UCLA and one of the co-chairs of the board of the United We Dream Network, the largest national network of immigrant youths.
The courageous self-declared “Undocumented and Unafraid” students in the United We Dream Network risk deportation and organize and speak out tirelessly so they and others can have the right to a college education and to live and work with dignity in the country that is their home. Their efforts led to a major victory with the Obama Administration’s June announcement that it would stop deporting young undocumented immigrants age 30 or younger without criminal records who came to the United States before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, and are students, high school graduates, or military veterans in good standing. When Carlos shared his story at the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent national conference which he and over 80 other Dream Act youth activists attended, he stressed that a key to the students’ success wasn’t support from powerful allies but their willingness to believe in their own power: “It didn’t come from multi-million-dollar campaigns—I was part of that campaign since the beginning, and we didn’t get [any] funding, because no one believed in it . . . But we made it happen.”
Catherine Eusebio, who spoke alongside Carlos, repeated that determination. She came to the United States from the Philippines with her family when she was four years old. Today Catherine is a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley with a degree in political science. Five years ago as a high school senior desperate to go on to college she suddenly became aware that she had spent her childhood growing up in California devoted to studying hard and doing well in school but that didn’t matter to many adults in power: “This was in 2007 when the Congress was taking up immigration reform, and so I saw this contrast: I worked really, really hard to get to where I am so I could go to college, and then Congress is saying that these people don’t belong here, that they’re illegal, that we should deport them . . . I didn’t understand, as someone who was very young, and suddenly being accused or made to feel like I didn’t belong in America . . . [I was] thinking that I did all the right things, that I was one of the ‘good’ immigrants, and that because of that, I would be respected and valued as American—but it still made me realize that we all exist in this culture of fear. And that’s not something that should be happening in America.” Catherine then made the same decision Carlos and the thousands of undocumented student activists like them who refused to abandon their dreams and hide in the shadows did: “I realized that it takes the people that are affected by an issue not to be the victims, but to be the agents of change.”
Carlos and Catherine and their youth network participants inspired us all. They and the students they work with are a testimony to the difference one person can make, no matter how young or old. The members of the United We Dream Network have never had the right to vote. However many political people who are afraid of the enormous potential power of young people of all backgrounds who do have the right to vote have made young people one of their targets in voter suppression efforts which threaten voting rights and democratic processes across our country. States are adding new photo ID and residency laws and laws restricting early voting and pre-registration that all make it harder for young people to vote—including college students who may carry college IDs that are no longer allowed, or who may need to vote in the state where they attend school but are not considered “residents” under new restrictions, or in their home state on a day other than Election Day.
We can’t allow these negative undemocratic efforts to succeed. Young people and all of us need to speak out loudly against voter suppression in every form. Young people also can help with voter registration, get out the vote campaigns, poll watching, and other parts of the electoral process. They and all of us must be committed to using the power we have and never let hurdles and negative policies passively shape our lives. Like Carlos and Catherine and all their courageous Dream partners, we too can and must be agents of change.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.