Leo Reyes and some friends gathered for dinner the night after the 2016 presidential election.
Donald Trump’s victory had devastated and shocked the group, many of whom are protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Since 2012, the Obama-era executive order had deferred deportation for up to two years for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States while minors. But its future suddenly looked doubtful.
At the dinner, Reyes and his friends talked about how much their lives had changed since they became recipients of DACA, so-called “Dreamers.” They had all gone to college. They had jobs and driver’s licenses. And they talked about how fragile those footholds truly were, and how they could be deported if DACA were repealed.
So they decided to organize.
The group dubbed themselves the Oregon DACA Coalition. On the Monday after the dinner—just six days after Trump’s election—the young coalition held its first formal meeting.
Today, the group is one of at least three activist organizations in Oregon rallying Latinx millennials and DACA recipients concerned about Trump’s policies. Their emergence has been a hopeful sign of local resistance against Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, but that opposition is being tested. As DACA’s reversal becomes reality, activists are questioning how vocal and visible they can be—if at all.
“Dreamers have been organizing for a long time,” says Andrea Williams, executive director of immigrant rights organization Causa. “Certainly, what’s different now is that there is more visibility. They should be leading this effort. Their voices are front and central.”
Trump’s election jerked liberals and progressives out of complacency, leading to massive nationwide Women’s Marches in January and other political actions. But the catalyzing event for many of Oregon’s Latinx millennials was the arrest and detainment of Francisco Rodriguez Dominguez, a 25-year-old DACA recipient from Portland, this past March.
“It represented the fact that [DACA] was truly not permanent,” says Vianca, a 23-year old DACA recipient and senior organizer of Portland-based Pueblo Unido, which advocates for undocumented immigrants living in east Multnomah County. “I was living in this bubble [thinking] that I was safe, and that very much was not true. It represented... my reawakening to the fact that I am, in fact, eligible for deportation.”
These harsh realizations spurred action. By April, three political advocacy organizations had sprung up, each aimed at giving Latinx millennials and DACA recipients a voice: Portland-based Milenio (which translates to “millennium” in Spanish), Pueblo Unido, and the Salem-based Oregon DACA Coalition.
Millennials—people born between the early 1980s to the early 1990s—represent the largest generation in United States history and also, some say, the most politically conscious.
“We’re waking up to a world that we were not promised. This isn’t what we thought it would be, and people are organizing,” says Vianca, who asked that her last name not be printed for fear of deportation.
Since forming, the Oregon DACA Coalition’s members have attended rallies and hand-delivered letters to Oregon’s Congressional representatives at town hall meetings. In August, they started a scholarship program to pay the $495 fee for Dreamers renewing their DACA status, which has already helped nearly 50 people.
Juan Rogel, who founded Milenio in April, has become one of the most visible faces of Portland’s activist community. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Portland on September 19 to spread a message of fear about undocumented immigrants, Milenio was on the front line of groups protesting.
Approximately 800,000 people around the country are protected by DACA, and 11,000 of them live in Oregon. In a move he’d long telegraphed, Trump rescinded the program on September 5, but delayed deportation enforcement against Dreamers for six months. That gives Congress time to pass the DREAM Act—which would grant conditional, then permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who came here as minors—or similar legislation. If no new protections are passed, Dreamers are at great risk for deportation.
Advocating for DACA is far more personal than typical political policy fights, Vianca and others say. She laughs when she thinks of how much her life has changed due to the program.
“I go to school. I have a job. I’m just like a real person now,” she says. “I can go outside without feeling too nervous. It sounds like a meaningless thing. But it was always hard to think of lies and excuses about why you can’t go outside with your friends.”
But this political involvement is being tested now that she, and others protected by DACA, could face deportation.
Rogel says “it’s hard to tell” how his organization will be affected by DACA’s uncertain future. Some of Milenio’s members have already told him they can no longer be visibly involved.
“I have volunteers tell me, ‘I have to figure out what I’m going to do.’ They tell me, ‘I have a son.’ ‘I have a daughter.’ ‘I have a family,’” Rogel says.
Others are more active than ever.
“There’s no going back, at least for me,” says Reyes, of the Oregon DACA Coalition. “It’s true... it’s a very difficult decision, a very personal decision to put your name out there. What happens if nothing takes DACA’s place?”
He and others said Dreamers are “open targets,” given that, to receive protection under DACA, they had to give the federal government their addresses and other personal information that makes it easy for them to be found—and possibly deported.
“They know where we live,” Reyes says. “We can’t afford to stay quiet. We can’t afford to go back into the shadows. There are no shadows to go back to.”
Vianca says she’s come to terms with possible deportation. The threat she and the Latinx community are facing, she says, “makes me want to go at it harder.”
Each day brings new developments concerning DACA’s future. On September 20, Oregon’s Democratic Congressional delegation sent a letter to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s director of enforcement and removal operations in Oregon, asking the Portland field office to “refrain from targeting DACA recipients and their families, and avoid conducting massive and untargeted deportation raids.”
Republican Representative Greg Walden was the only Oregon Congressman not to sign the letter. Williams, of Causa, says Walden is the “Oregon target” for political advocacy over the next six months.
In fact, Williams and a DACA recipient met with Walden earlier this week. "It's going to be a difficult battle to get the DREAM Act passed," she tells the Mercury, adding that Walden seemed "committed to supporting a bill that would protect DACA recipients. He couldn't give us an answer if that was the DREAM Act."
Vianca, Reyes, and others don’t trust Trump’s intentions or Congress’ ability to pass legislation. Williams, on the other hand, thinks that “we may be the closest we’ve ever been to getting [the DREAM Act] passed” due to increased political organizing.
Yet all agree the next six months of advocacy are crucial. For these organizers, passing permanent legislation is their end goal, as well as advocating on behalf of other undocumented immigrants.
“If our DACA and undocumented members feel like they need to pull back, we need more documented people,” Vianca said. “We need documented Latinos to come out and realize that this is their issue, too.”
Reyes agrees. “Change isn’t going to happen,” he says, “unless we get out and create that sense of visibility.”