Hella Undocumented

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An interview with Pablo Paredes

Pablo Paredes is program director of 67 Sueños, a project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), based in its San Francisco office. The project helps underprivileged migrant youth bring their voices into the national immigration debate. Pablo Paredes spoke by phone with Western Friend on May 29, 2013. Thanks to Solomon Smilack for transcribing the interview, which is excerpted below.

Western Friend: Could you begin by talking a little bit about how you came to hold this position with AFSC?

Pablo Paredes: When I first came to the Bay Area in 2007, I was hired by AFSC to do some work with veterans and with youth around challenging militarism. So I did that work for about three years, and I grew to realize there was a significant number of undocumented youth in the Oakland public schools. I saw that the issues of legal status and immigration and legalization were very real for the youth I was talking with. I often found myself framing conversations about militarism around migrant justice issues, to make it more relevant. Militarism abroad is usually tied really tightly to militarism at home. For migrant youth, that means deportations in the family, it means ICE raids, it means checkpoints.

So those things were already becoming apparent in that work during 2007-2010. Around 2010, two things happened that allowed me a window of opportunity. First, the militarism work that I had been doing had really reaped some benefits. We had launched a campaign that was becoming successful: We were able to get the pubic school districts in Berkley, San Francisco, and Oakland all to pass resolutions that were very aggressively challenging access of military recruiters to the schools, so we had a strong presence in the Bay Area with a counter-military critique.

The second thing that was happening in 2010 was that in the immigrants’ rights movement, the focus had shifted to whatever piecemeal legislation could be passed. The Obama administration was two years old, with almost a million deportations, and the conversation in Congress was at a stalemate. There was no apparent way that comprehensive immigration reform would be passed in that first term. So the migrant justice community embraced the Dream Act in large part as the only thing they could win. Unfortunately that meant holding their nose about a lot of problems with it. One of the paths for legalization through the Dream Act was a military path. So there was a huge debate happening that was implicating the peace movement, the anti-war movement, and the migrant justice movement. It was happening in a way that was kind of ugly to me.

The peace movement folks were not in the trenches of the migrant youth movement, but they were talking to a lot of migrant youth workers who were in the trenches and telling them what they should and should not advocate for. The peace movement had to be pushed on the way they were doing things. The immigrants-rights groups had to be pushed on the way they were accepting militarism in the legislation. We were really interested in throwing our hat in the ring. I pitched the idea to my supervisor and she was really excited about it.

So that summer I partnered with the Northern California ACLU's youth program. My job was to bring a militarism critique into their migrant justice project. I went on a road trip with them. We had an eight-day intense experience really beefing up on migrant justice with a militarism critique. I was able to pull four of the youth from that trip into 67 Sueños – the original crew.  With them, we were able to pull together seven young people that first year and we tried a lot of things. Very quickly we were won over by the idea of using art. Also, the young folks that we were working with had been through a lot of trauma, so the space had to be a healing space as much as it had to be an on-ramp to movement work. So that’s how the program looks today. It's a program that has a lot of political education, a lot of healing built into it, a lot of youth organizing, a lot of art.

WF: How do young people find your program and connect with it?

PP: We are looking for underprivileged youth. That is intentional. The huge gaping hole in the Dream Act, as we saw it, isn't actually the militarism critique. For us, it's the classist nature of it. The Migration Policy Institute found that 67% of undocumented youth would not qualify for The Dream Act. That was mostly a class issue. There was a group of working youth who hadn't been to school in a long time and were very financially dependent on their vocations, so they were extremely unlikely to be able to go back to school for the amount of time it would take to legalize under the Dream Act.

When you look at migration, people don't like to talk about things like this, but there’s a big difference between how people got here. If someone came on a student visa and let it expire, they usually came from a much more privileged tradition than people who had to cross the border without papers and pay a coyote. There was a campus-based Dreamer movement across the country that reflected the slice at the top, the ones who did most of the advocating for the Dream Act. The biggest slice of the community was completely absent from the debate. So in our outreach, we tried really hard to grab kids who were struggling in school, kids who didn't have the financial and family support to make it to college. Of course we do try to support them if college is their dream, but we look for the young folks who didn't have the valedictorian experience promoted in the campus-based Dreamer movement.

WF: When the students start working with you, what do they experience in those first encounters?

PP: We believe that everything starts with stories. We usually start with an ice-breaker game called “Migrate.” We get into a circle, and one person is without a chair, and they say something that is true about themselves. The first round is superficial, like “Migrate if you have blue jeans on.” A lot of people move around; they see there's a lot of commonality. In the second round, people start to say something personal that isn't superficial, like “Migrate if you have been bullied.” In the third round, we make it immigration-focused and personal, like “Migrate if you have had a family member deported,” or “Migrate if you have been through a checkpoint,” or “Migrate if ICE has ever raided your house.” These things start to come out, and they realize they aren't alone.

WF: When you go out in the course of the year doing the work as a team, what does that look like?

PP: That looks a lot of different ways. We meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There's the internal work and what we do in the community. The first thing internally is the healing circles, and that's the staple of our weekly work. The second thing internally is the political education. Both of those happen on Tuesdays. On Thursday, we are more focused on what we do in the world and the community. Usually in the fall we get engaged in a few activities and campaigns that are chosen by the veteran youth and the coordinator. In the spring, the first thing we do is brainstorm. What do you want to do this spring and summer? What do you want the work to look like? The only thing set in stone is that we will do a mural as our staple summer project. The youth come up with the other projects.

WF: What are some examples of some of the more interesting projects?

PP: One year the young folks interviewed day laborers, and heard their stories, and created viral videos to educate people about the fact that there are 14- to17-year-old kids working as day laborers. Another example is the visual language campaign that we're doing this year. The youth said, we go to all these events, and they’re dominated by these campus-based groups, and they talk really differently than us. How can it look more like us? While the college-campus-based group had the slogan of “We're unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed,” we thought, how do we express that? So our youth created “Hella Undocumented” gear. We put it on shirts, hats, belt buckles, all sorts of swag that we created. Folks that don't usually show up to campus-based work, they kind of came out of the shadows to join us.

The last thing our work looks like during the year is the direct organizing. What we do is involve our youth in existing campaigns and try to strengthen those campaigns with a youth voice. In our political education, we make it a point to stay aware of current events, especially local events.  One good example of what that looks like is when Mi Pueblo supermarket in Oakland was doing massive firing of undocumented workers due to E-Verify. We got involved in that campaign. We were making the lead visuals for the campaign. We created a lot of chants. We created a theater piece. We got very involved and brought art and youth energy to it. It was a campaign that existed in the real world.

WF: I want to shift the focus a little bit. Liberal Friends in the US are not typically new immigrants. What are some of the biggest education gaps that Liberal allies have about migrant communities they want to be good allies to?

PP: Too often privileged Liberals come into this work from a place of “Here's this fact that I will share with you that will win you over to my side of the conversation.” So often this misses the mark of what's going on and the structural realities there. Things like diet. This comes up with my youth a lot.

My youth are hooked on Hot Cheetos and taquis. When they come into a space where there's hummus and pitas, a big culture shock moment happens. Too many folks on the privileged-but-progressive side of the aisle think it's just informational, “We can just tell them how bad that food is for their bodies and how good this food is for their bodies, and then they will make the switch.” It's deeper than that. It's a very big structural reality when you live in a neighborhood where you have to do your grocery shopping at the liquor store. The budget is so tight that you have to maximize the number of calories you can get for a dollar.

WF: So what would a welcoming space look like to the kids, a good ally situation, where they would feel comfortable?

PP: Numbers are a big part of it. I try to cultivate a space where my young folks and their community are a majority. A space where they are comfortable and can do things their own way. They can have their foods, speak in their way of speaking. Then invite folks who want to be allies to step into that space and not expect everything they expect to be there. That's a prerequisite to being an ally in my book. You can't show up to the local community-of-color space in East Oakland and complain that there's no organic option. If you want to bring some, that's fine.

I'd say a really good example of it working well was when we did the mural in San Francisco. It was a place where the youth were really able to exercise their own voice and come up with it independently in their own group. There was a lot of trust on the part of the Quaker meeting. They didn't try to exercise veto power or try to frame what the migrant youth voice was going to look like on the wall. They really made good allies. “We want you to work on our wall. We want to come to the paint party. We want to come to the unveiling event.” They were able to bring ideas and influence our youth. It wasn't imposing, and it wasn't overwhelming to the point of squeezing out an alternative way of looking at things. The voice was still authentic. I think that was a pretty good go at it.

WF: Is there anything Quakers especially can offer to this effort for an egalitarian humanity?

PP: We come at it in a different way. There's empathy at the heart of our work. What is easiest to do and most politically viable for the migrant justice movement to do is to “put our best foot forward” and show these Harvard and UC Berkeley undocumented students that are the picture of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” In doing that, it becomes hard to talk about the vast majority of the people in the community who are not on their way to Harvard or UC Berkeley.

Our work in 67 Sueños became “How do we humanize a community that has become so dehumanized?” How do we talk about a young person that might have a criminal record, or might have dropped out of high school, or might be sixteen and pregnant, and still present a picture of a person that deserves human rights? Usually these youth are met by society at the ass end of the story: You screwed up; you didn't go to school; you had marijuana on your person; you got caught tagging the school. But that’s not the whole story: Your father got deported when you were 10 years old; your mother was working 80 hours per week and couldn't spend time with you at all; the only family you had were the kids on the corner stealing cars and spraying up the neighborhood. That's how we go into the work. We tell stories. We get people to see the human being inside that person, the light inside that person, the beauty inside that person. ~~~

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