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Interviews

An Interview with Cristina Jiménez Moreta, Co-founder of United We Dream

Cristina Jiménez Moreta is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led community in the country, made up of over 400,000 members as well as 5 statewide branches and over 100 local groups across 28 states. After the failure of the Dream Act, Ms. Jimenez Moreta was instrumental in United We Dream’s successful push for President Obama to sign Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) into law. Due to her work as a social justice organizer, Ms. Jimenez Moreta received a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, the Four Freedoms Award, and a spot on the 2018 TIME 100 List.

The Politic: The concept of ‘illegality’ is a really complex one. I’ve read that categorization of some immigrants as ‘illegal’ is as much a social construction as a legal one. For instance, European and Asian immigrants make up 20% of the undocumented population, yet very few people suspect them of ‘illegality.’ What does that mean to you? 

Jiménez Moreta: The central point here, to address a narrative and a framework of ‘illegality,’ is race and racism. What we see underneath the efforts to label all immigrants as less than human and criminalize them is a way to then justify any action by the government– whether that is family separation, kids in cages, the kidnapping of children, deportation, the denial of access to due process, etcetera. When we look underneath that [narrative], it really is an effort to criminalize the community as a way to then justify any action. The immigration system, by design, is much rooted in racism; through its laws and different institutions in American society, immigrants, and particularly immigrants of color, must experience systematic racism and oppression every day. Whether it be walking home or driving to work, people are getting detained by local police who then work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport communities.

We are seeing these stories all across the country. United We Dream has a deportation hotline and an app called ‘Notifica,’ where we support community members around interactions that they have with ICE and when they are targeted by ICE officers. We hear stories every day about people who were driving, stopped for no reason by local police, and then immediately asked for their citizenship. Then, local police work with ICE for the facilitated deportation and the detention of people.  

We just had a father, Jorge Sarango, who was detained in New York but then transported to a jail in Alabama, very far away from his family, where he experienced multiple atrocities and mistreatment in the detention camp, or the jail facility where he was held. It was the organization of the community that was able to get him released. But now, you know, he is dealing with a lot of the trauma… and the fight is not over. We are still fighting his deportation. He has kids that are less than 8 years old who have now also been traumatized by this entire experience. We are seeing entire families being mistreated in the name of living in this country ‘illegally.’

When it comes to your question, though, the most important thing is that in the same way we have seen Trump, for example, use his platform to label all immigrants and/or particular immigrants from Mexico as ‘criminals’ or ‘rapists,’ the reality is that both our immigration system and our policies are currently designed to criminalize immigrants… and particularly immigrants of color. These immigrants do not only include people from Mexico, which is unfortunately the driving narrative. When we talk about the undocumented population, as you mention it, there are European immigrants that are undocumented, there are black immigrants that are undocumented, and there are Asian immigrants that are undocumented. There are undocumented immigrants from all parts of the world that have come to the United States seeking refuge or a better life. Yet, the current narrative, our policy, and our systems have been designed in a way that people coming to this country seeking a better life and their act of coming here are deemed ‘crimes.’ So, this framework of ‘illegality’ and ‘criminality’ is used to target communities; we see that every single day, as evidenced by Jorge’s story.

When we talk about issues of racism, we know that meeting people of different races and actively trying to understand their perspective can help humanize them and reduce prejudice. But a part of the problem seems to be the difficulty of actually engaging with undocumented immigrants and learning to understand their perspective, especially when–as you have mentioned before–it is so difficult/risky to be open about one’s status.

How do we humanize undocumented immigrants and get to know their perspective without demanding too much of them? What does United We Dream do in that respect– how does it bring their stories to light?

For us, it is important to be aware of what we are up against. United We Dream, being an organization led by undocumented young people in particular who are fighting for the families and their communities, it is important to know that we are dealing with policies, laws, and systems that are unjust, that are racist, and that have been designed to target immigrants of color in particular and in very intentional ways. Knowing that informs the way that we organize ourselves and the way that we create places of empowerment and safety for our members at United We Dream, our community, and our families. United We Dream really becomes a place where many immigrants get to share that they are undocumented for the first time, or get to hear others who are sharing their stories of being undocumented for the time.

Because of how targeted our communities are, we live in a constant state of fear. Being able to sometimes share without the fear that something will happen to you brings such a huge relief and a personal transformation… moving from a deep place of fear and perhaps shame to a place of finding your voice, feeling empowered, feeling supported, and feeling you belong to a community that sees you as a fellow human and that will be with you and support you along the way. That is why we really believe in the power of story. A fundamental part of United We Dream is storytelling and sharing our stories. We believe that stories create places not only of safety but also of transformation and can encourage others to share their stories.

When I think about myself, I grew up undocumented, feeling really afraid of sharing that I was undocumented to anyone, and when I got to share my story with some fellow undocumented young people that were part of the Yale people that created United We Dream, I felt such a huge relief, but also a sense that I was not alone anymore and that I had a community around me. So sharing our stories is critical to our work, and being able to share stories, with the broader community outside of United We Dream spaces, whether that is through media, or interviews, or social media, and sharing our stories and the diversity of experiences of immigrants from different continents, immigrants that have faced different journeys to get here–whether that is coming with a visa or going through the river and/or multiple borders to get here–all of those are stories that lift up both the struggles and the conditions that lead to many of our community members to come to this country, but also their dreams and their aspirations, and how they relate to many of the stories of other people. The stories really create a connection among all of us, and I think it has really helped us also humanize the conversation around immigration. and for other that may not be immigrants themselves, or who have not gone through the journey of migrating, it allows us to really be able to get to the human component of this conversation, rather than a really manufactured debate, a narrative, that has aimed to take away our humanity and criminalize families and people like my own parents who have left everything behind and sacrificed so much because they wanted to ensure that I could have a better life than what they thought I could have in a place like Ecuador where I was born.

I recently read a poem by Andrew Lustig titled, “I Am Jewish,” and I was really struck by these lines:

I am the collective pride and excitement that is felt when we find out that that new actor, that great athlete, his chief of staff… is Jewish

And I am the collective guilt and shame that is felt when we find out that that serial killer, that Ponzi schemer, that wife beater… is Jewish

For every one undocumented immigrant who does something ‘regrettable,’ there are so many that are well-meaning and/or contribute so much. But it seems like some news sources, like Fox News, try to pick up on that one regrettable incident. What does that make you feel? Do you feel that kind of collective guilt and shame? Do you even blame that particular immigrant when–as you mentioned– the system is designed against them? Are you upset at news sources like Fox News for pedaling the narrative of ‘illegality’ and ‘criminality’?

For me, every time that happens, it is a reminder that places like Fox News, people like Donald Trump, and many others who hold really nativist and racist views and values are going to use anything and everything to scapegoat immigrants– to take away our humanity, to criminalize the community, and to leverage and use the mistake of one immigrant as a reason to further criminalize the rest of the community. For me, I understand the agenda and what is underneath many of these tactics that are used by the media and/or elected officials to criminalize the community. That does not take away feeling, obviously, sad and aware of the impact that a human being hurting another creates for that person and also the loved ones and family involved.

But acknowledging that, I think the outraging part is when these events are utilized to criminalize an entire community and as a reason to then target our communities with systems and laws that are already designed, as I mentioned, to target immigrant community. The level of racial profiling that happens, even with local police, is unprecedented. The way that, for example, black immigrants face the highest rate of detention and removals or deportation, makes it clear that we are really talked about a racial justice issue. For me, the questions a reporter should ask is, why are we scapegoating these individuals and scapegoating this entire community? Why are immigrants being racially profiled at these levels?

And even when we think about the broader conversation around criminal justice, for example, we know that the systems and policies that we have in place have only led to the mass incarceration of black and Latina communities, in particular, here in the United States, and that all these systems and policies are profiting companies. The way in which we talk about drug addiction in black communities is not the same way we talk about, for example, drug addiction in white communities, or between communities of color and white communities. So, every time I see this, it is just a reminder of how all of this is being perpetuated against our communities, how the conversation around immigration is isolated from the conversation around race and racism, and how there is a need in this country for racial healing and justice. For me, these events motivate the work that we do with United We Dream and many of our partners working with communities, particularly immigrant communities, across the country.

On the flipside of that quote I mentioned, you yourself–as an undocumented immigrant–won the MacArthur Fellowship. In many ways, you are that person who creates a collective feeling of pride and excitement for many, many people and undocumented immigrants in particular. It seems like it must be exhilarating but also really tiring to speak on behalf of so many people and have such a large responsibility. Could you expand on your feelings about that?

For me, the recognition around awards and/or fellowships like the MacArthur Fellowship are significant because they recognize the sacrifice of my own family, my own parents, coming here and leaving it all– risking so much to ensure that, unlike my father, for example, who grew up homeless in Ecuador, I could have a better life. That’s why they came. Recognitions like this, for me, are also a recognition of my parents and people like them– immigrant families across the country just like us. If we can bring some hope, some inspiration, and some motivation to our community, that brings me a lot of joy. And it warms my heart that moments like [receiving the Fellowship] send a message to our community that they are seen and that they are valued, because everything else is telling them they are not valued, that they are not worth it, that they are not wanted– that instead, this government and this society want to get rid of them. I find movements like that to be very important and powerful for an entire community that is marginalized on a consistent basis, that is told on a consistent basis that they don’t belong here and that they are not wanted here. That brings me a lot of joy.

And with that joy, it also–as you were sharing–brings greater responsibility, which I take seriously. This is why, as a community organizer doing the work of empowering immigrant communities to come together and fight for justice and to defend our communities, over the last decade or more that I have been doing this work, it is for me a source both inspiration and understanding the responsibility. And for me, I would not say that it gets tiring; for me, it is always more of a question of how I am using my voice and the platform and visibility that I have to bring more people from my community along– whether that is opening up opportunities, showing that our community is visible in places where we are not visible, and/or expanding the conversation to recognize an immigrant community that is diverse. Our community does not only have the business owners, the entrepreneurs, the academics, or the scientists. We have them. But we also have working-class families and people who are struggling in a very difficult economy and a society that has been designed, unfortunately, to limit opportunity for communities of color.

Expanding the conversation beyond the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ immigrant, or the ‘excellent’ immigrant… I think that is exactly what I see as the responsibility for using my platform– to not perpetuate the same oppressive and dehumanizing narratives that have been created to target our communities, but to rather humanize the conversation, expand the conversation, and challenge the discourse to ensure more and more that we are getting closer to a day in this country where people of color and immigrants will be able to thrive and live without fear. I know that is a dream that I share with millions of people in this country, and I just see my story and what I can do through my platform and in the different places or conversations that I am part of as a contribution to those efforts to one day get to that vision.

21 Savage was just detained by ICE. What is the broader meaning of his detainment, especially considering he applied for a U visa in 2017 and that he has been a vocal opponent of ICE?

What I think is important about the story of 21 Savage– an immigrant, a black immigrant, a rapper, a very visible person who has used his gift of music to not only speak out against the racist policies that we have around immigrant and detention, also, for example, to lift up other issues of injustice like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan– is that it is not unusual under the Trump Administration, which has done everything to make immigrants, and particularly immigrants of color, a target of ICE. And through President Trump’s executive orders and rhetoric, he has made it really clear that he will not stop. He can deport people in mass and really do what he campaigned on during the presidential election in 2016: deporting all immigrants.  

What we are seeing under this administration–which is also clear in the case of 21 Savage–is that they are going after people that are speaking out in our communities. Before 21 Savage, that happened to Dany Vargas, a young immigrant woman, who was targeted after she spoke in a press conference about the injustice that her family faced with the deportation and detention of her dad and brother. Right after she spoke publicly in this press conference, she was arrested by ICE officers. They told her that they had been following her steps– following how she had been publicly sharing the story of her family and asking for justice. 21 Savage is another story, another example, of how ICE is targeting people who are speaking out against their racist policies and practices.

They are also disproportionately going after black and brown immigrants; the 21 Savage story is yet another example of that. I think the significance of this is that now there is a person, a rapper, that is known by millions of people, loved by millions of people, who through his experience we are able to expand the conversation with African-American communities who may not understand or know what is happening with black immigrants or with immigrant communities. Through his experience, we are able to expand the conversation with many of his fans who were upset and concerned about what was happening to him, why he was detained, and why he was going to be deported. I think that that is what has been really important about his particular story.

At time where Congress has been debating whether or not, for example, to fund or increase resources for ICE and border patrol agents (so that there are more deportations and detentions) or fund the wall which President Trump is obsessed about (which is really, underneath the wall, his racist views and agenda), it has been really helpful to not only lift up 21 Savage’s story but also the story of millions who are still targeted, the thousands of immigrants, including children, who are still right now in detention, and to lift up why Congress should not increase resources for Trump’s deportation force but rather hold them accountable for all of the human and civil rights violations that are taking place and to cut their funding. ICE is an agency that is out of control– racially targeting communities of color and terrorizing entire communities. 21 Savage’s story has been important not only because it allowed us to come together to fight for him to be freed and released, which he was earlier this week, but because it was a collective effort by the Black Lives Matter movement, the UndocuBlack Network, organizations like ColorOfChange, United We Dream, and many others that came together to organize our communities and demand for his release.

We were working on [21 Savage’s case] while also lifting up what is underneath the deportation and the detentions of people like him and many other immigrants, particularly as it relates to black communities who are disproportionately targeted, and why we need to bring accountability and take resources away from agencies that are targeting our communities. This case and his story has allowed us the opportunity to illuminate the conversation with people across the country who may not be aware of what is happening to immigrant communities and black immigrants.