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US Elections: The Dream Activists

In final week before the US election, Dazed speaks with Juan Escalante, an activist in the American immigrant youth movement

Juan Escalante is a Venezuelan-born, Florida-based immigration activist who has been living in the US for over half his life. The 23-year-old just graduated with a political science degree and in an ideal world, he’d like to take a Masters in public policy. But Escalante is an undocumented migrant, which means he can’t get a job, he can’t continue with university, he can’t even get a driving license. Right now he’s hoping to be approved for Obama’s Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program, but him and other young people in a similar position are worried they’ll be deported if Romney gets elected before they’re accepted into the program.

Escalante is a prominent organiser in the Dream Activist network, a group of people who are all under 30 and in a similar situation. They help people who would benefit from the Dream Act, a bill which would grant young immigrants citizenship under certain constraints. The Act was proposed in 2001, but still hasn’t been approved, despite Obama standing behind it. The network also fights for older undocumented immigrants who are suffering unfair treatment and detainment at the hands of the state, by starting media campaigns and providing legal support

Recently 27-year-old Dream Act activist Benita Veliz made history by addressing the Democratic National Convention in September - it was the first time an undocumented immigrant has unashamedly spoke about her illegal status, and highlighted the precarious situation of so many young people in the same position as her. Dazed spoke with Escalante to find out if Veliz’s speech signals an improvement for young immigrants in the States, and what it would mean for the movement if Obama was re-elected or if Romney became President.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved with the Dream Activist network?
Juan Escalante:
I came to the United States in 2000 but I didn’t discover my status until 2007 when I was applying for colleges and I noticed they were asking for a little bit more information about my immigration status than normal. My parents broke down and told me that we’d came here on a professional visa, but because of failure on the part of our lawyers, we were stuck in limbo, where we can’t legalise our status, we’re just pending forever. So all my documents that I had up until that point, were still valid but not renewable. I was 18 at the time, it was an identity crisis, I dealt with it by saying “this can’t be the only route – what else can I do?” So I started posting in online forums, and I met the people who were all going through the same story. Eventually I met up with them and we formed which has became a cornerstone of the immigration movement.

DD: What does the Dream Activist network do?
Juan Escalante: Over the years we’ve held petition drives, gotten people out of detention and sponsored events - it’s primarily for young people, the Dream Act beneficiaries, but it does not stop us from focussing on adults either. We give them equal representation and as much passion as we can to their case, and we make sure people pay attention. One of the biggest misconceptions is that this is a huge operation, but the beauty is that all the work gets done online or on the ground. It’s all done with grassroots effort, and it’s a couple of activists down there with little to no budget and a couple of volunteer lawyers. It’s about making as much noise as possible. We try to take in as much as we can and give everyone a fighting chance.

DD: What’s a recent project you’ve been working on?
Juan Escalante: A couple of our organisers went down to south Florida and infiltrated a facility that houses 600 low-priority immigrants, meaning they’ve done something like been caught driving without a license. So a lot of them have either been there for months, or are being prioritised to be deported. There’s been reports about abusive treatment at the facility so our organisers have been collecting data and petition signatures and they partnered with congressional members in order to completely revise of the facility. You know, a lot of these people are breadwinners for the family, and there’s the question of what is going to happen to the children? We make an online media campaign for these individuals to highlight these stories, and those signatures eventually reach a desk of immigration deportment agent, and they’re willing to take a second look - sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.

DD: Is immigration a big topic in the States with the election right now?
Juan Escalante: I would say it’s definitely up in the top ten. Jobs and the economy are the top two points of this election, but at the end of the day, everybody is taking a look at this issue because the Latino voting block is growing. If you want to win the election, you need to support that block, and immigration is one of the top issues for Latino families in the States.

DD: What has Obama’s stance on immigration been?
Juan Escalante: President Obama has always been a supporter of the Dream Act and he also signed the order for the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals. However, in the years of negotiation, nothing has come of his promises. He has a majority in Congress, in both houses, and immigration reform came and went and nothing was done.  And it’s not only the fact that he didn’t deliver on immigration reform, it’s that he has a record number of deportations. He has deported more people in the history of the United States, ever. That’s why it makes you wonder about the Democrats programmes for actions and campaigns, because they only happened during an election year. Benita Veliz’s speech in the Democratic convention was to appease Latinos and Hispanics.

DD: So the impact of the impact of Benita Veliz’s speech was minimal?
Juan Escalante:
I think it very one-sided because the speech was not made public on national television. It highlighted how the Democratic party and President Obama in particular have been very supportive of Benita and the Dream Act and immigration policy. Yes it’s a big deal to have her speak at a national convention, but at the same time the effect was very minimal, especially when you’re speaking to audiences who get it, and it’s not being made public on networks here like CNN.

DD: It’s surprising that Benita’s speech wasn’t covered by CNN and other networks, because it was covered by media in the UK.
Juan Escalante: It’s very interesting to see the differences in between the media in the US and internationally, in terms of what people consider important and not important. Sometimes there will be articles on the BBC or the Guardian and I’m like “why is no one over here reporting this?” Benita’s speech is a landmark for people to see how far the immigrant youth movement has come. But to me it falls flat on the impact that it has on the overall nation.

DD: You’ve spoken about how you’re disappointed with how Obama’s handled this, what is your opinion on Romney?
Juan Escalante: Governor Romney flip flops here and there, so it’s hard to keep track of what he says. He doesn’t support the Dream Act as it currently stands, he would like a military only version of the Dream Act, but lately in the debate he said that if were president he would pass the Dream Act for people who are young. It’s very hard to get a straight answer, because as a Republican he doesn’t want to lose the support of his base which is fairly anti-immigrant and for strong migrant regulations, and at the same time he doesn’t want to alienate Latino and Hispanic voters. Then a very pivotal point of his campaign has been the self-deportation issue, in which he spoke about making it so unbearable for individuals to live in this country that they would just uproot themselves and eventually leave. So people continue to hammer him on this.

DD: Are you worried about what would happen with young immigrants in the US if Romney is elected?
Juan Escalante: Yes, I think we have to be wary to as to what would happen. With the Action For Childhood Arrivals Programme, which I am subscribing to, if you’re accepted into this programme, you’re essentially revealing your identity to the government in exchange for a work permit and other benefits. Governor Romney has stated that he will not take action unless people have been accepted onto the programme, but if you don’t get accepted nto the programme, and should he get elected into office, then god knows what will happen then. Maybe he will use that information against those people, maybe he wouldn’t. At the moment there are more questions than there are answers. So we’re making sure that people apply as soon as they can and hopefully get accepted before the elections, because otherwise you really don’t know what’s going to happen with this programme, and what action could be taken against you if you were not to be approved.

It’s hard to say how Governor Romney would change current programmes and if he’d take that even further step and deport even more people. Every administration has so many different priorities, and leading up to election he will say what he must in order to get elected. Wou also have to be aware of who his immigration advisors are, who often aren’t the friendliest of people when it comes to this type of thing. So, we could have a potential meltdown on our hands.

DD: What would you like to see happen ideally with immigration policy in the States?
Juan Escalante: At the end of the day I feel like this issue really has just become one of those pedestals that people get on and shout to their constituents saying “We want more immigrants and we want the Dream Act!’ And then on the other side they’ll be like “We don’t want more immigrants or the Dream Act!” I would like to see it morph into actual policy that both sides are willing to discuss. It just becomes a really big political football game where people just shuffle around their opinions and votes. At the end of the day, the people who pay the price are people like me, it doesn’t cost them anything but it costs me years of my life that I’m in hold, just because they cant get their political mindset straight. And then there are families are being destroyed and separated through deportation. So, it’s all about the policy and making sure that we are able to come to a single agreement, sooner rather than later.