The Young Activists Who Remade the Democratic Party’s Immigration Politics

Kathleen Lantto |

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From The Nation:

By Julianne Hing

 Shortly after Hillary Clinton took the microphone to deliver a speech on immigration to a packed Brooklyn ballroom in December, the interruptions started. Activists calling attention to hunger-striking detainees silently unfurled a banner. More vocal protesters criticized Clinton for saying last year that asylum-seeking child migrants should be “sent back” to Central America. Clinton simply raised her voice and spoke more forcefully. But after the silent banner and before the heckling, she also paused to recognize Lorella Praeli, her new director of Latino outreach.

 Clinton spoke at length about Praeli, offering a profile heavier on biographical details than on professional credentials. (Born in Peru, Praeli came to the United States for medical care at age 10 and became politically active after learning in high school that she was undocumented.) She mentioned that Praeli was set to be sworn in as a citizen by President Obama the very next day. Standing alone by an exit, Praeli beamed and held back tears; her father walked over and embraced her.

Clinton moved on to criticize Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant circus act and Marco Rubio’s waffling indecision on immigration reform. By the time the candidate vowed—to cheers—to shut down family- detention centers, Praeli had maneuvered to the opposite side of the ballroom, where security had pulled a protester outside. Not long ago, she was a spokesperson for those interrupting the Democratic establishment; now, she’s stepping in on behalf of the party’s front-runner.

Praeli, 27, is part of a generation of young undocumented activists who have wholly reshaped the Democratic Party’s immigration politics in the years since Barack Obama’s first campaign. The current election cycle has shown just how dangerous campaign seasons can be for immigrants, just how easy it is to turn people deemed outsiders into targets. But it’s also been a watershed moment for the immigrant-rights movement. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates have recruited prominent players from the loose group of young activists known as “Dreamers” to guide their campaigns’ Latino outreach. While Clinton brought on Praeli, Bernie Sanders chose Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas. All three were until recently undocumented; none have voted in a presidential election. They all enter presidential politics at a movement crossroads: Without a reconfiguration of Congress, legislative reform appears indefinitely stalled. That reality has forced immigrant-rights activists to re-examine their strategy and has prompted the movement’s stars to step into campaign politics, betting on the candidates they think will most likely alter Washington’s political balance of power.

 Many dreamers from the 2010 fight are no longer involved in single-issue immigrant advocacy, having moved on to other spheres like labor, LGBT organizing, law, education, academia, and cultural work. After the defeat of the Dream Act, some went back to school, just as they’d been intending to do before their names made the headlines. So despite the fact that they’re supporting different candidates, Andiola’s, Vargas’s, and Praeli’s staying power makes them “much more similar than dissimilar,” argues Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

Hincapié cites her interactions with the three former activists over the years: Vargas’s advocacy for a politically controversial provision of the Dream Act that would allow undocumented young people to serve in the military; Andiola’s remarkable ability to leverage strong grassroots power at key moments; and Praeli’s poise in making the case for executive action to White House officials. Vargas also waged a public campaign to win acceptance to the New York State Bar after he graduated from law school.

It’s easy to see how the three became especially attractive hires for the 2016 election cycle. It’s also easy to see why Clinton, fending off criticism that she’s a fair-weather progressive, would want to bring a savvy activist like Praeli into the fold, co-opting one of her potential critics. It’s just as easy to see how Sanders—who’s battled talk that he’s too white, too wacky, and too unknown to woo the Latino and immigrant vote—would benefit from hiring not just any Latino-outreach strategists, but two who have a national following and years of trust and goodwill in the community.

“There’s a dual reality here,” says Wong, the UC San Diego professor. “Part of the attraction of having these individuals work on presidential campaigns in 2016 is, they have a demonstrated track record of getting things done on a very difficult issue. But for candidates who are trying to reach out to Latinos, the undocumented-youth movement has also created a brand for itself when it comes to an appeal to immigrant communities.”

In 2012, Latino voters backed Obama over Romney 71 to 27 percent, and 2015 projections from the polling firm Latino Decisions suggest that whoever lands the GOP nomination will need to capture 47 percent of the Latino vote to win in November. However, that doesn’t relieve Democrats of their toughest challenge: coaxing Latinos, who have some of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the nation, to the polls. Every campaign needs a strategy.

But as historic as Praeli’s, Vargas’s, and Andiola’s campaign positions may be, the larger trend, Wong says, is one of immigrant youth becoming more civically engaged and turning to politics as the vehicle to fight for their communities. Six years ago, the landmark leadership achievement for a young undocumented immigrant-rights activist was announcing her status and maybe assembling a local student organization. Today, the marker is directing a major part of a Democratic presidential campaign. Call it the maturation of the movement, or just the individual progression of razor-sharp young people moving through their career arcs. Either way, one of the lasting achievements of the immigrant-youth movement is certainly the fact that those who came up in the 2010 fight for the Dream Act are now, five years on, in positions of leadership and influence in the Democratic Party.

This is not to say that the transition will always be an easy one. Vargas insists that he won’t compromise his political values for his job with the Sanders campaign. “I cannot be loyal to any party,” he states. “For us, loyalty means loyalty to our community and our families. If the senator was like, ‘No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’—if he wasn’t open to our ideas—we definitely would have dropped out a long time ago.”

This statement is more than a declaration of political integrity; it also burnishes Sanders’s reputation. To be fair, that’s not without cause. Ever since Vargas and Andiola (as well as their direct boss, Arturo Carmona, formerly of Presente.org) joined the campaign, Sanders has taken a far more aggressive stance on immigration reform. The Vermont senator has never been much known as a champion of immigrant rights, but last fall he announced a platform that, among other things, promises short-term deportation deferrals for the estimated 9 million people who would have been eligible under the failed 2013 comprehensive-reform bill.

“One of our objectives in this campaign was to focus on what the president cando, instead of what Congress cannot do,” Vargas says. “We’ve barely scratched the surface” when it comes to the options available to a president who wants to bring some relief to the nation’s undocumented immigrants. The same is true of the Dreamers themselves. “In the next few years,” Vargas predicts, “I think you’ll see someone become a citizen and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Dreamer, and I’m running for office.’”

Read the full article from The Nation.