Justino Mora was getting ready to start the sixth grade when his family arrived in California after fleeing his abusive father in Mexico City. With his mother and two siblings, he crossed the border into Texas and headed to Los Angeles to reunite with his aunt in a blue-collar suburb east of the city. On his first day of middle school, he was puzzled by all the bulky desktop machines. This was the first time he saw a computer.
"I saw the monitor and thought it was a TV," he told me as we stood in his old school's parking lot. "I thought it was odd they had so many TVs in the classroom." He became obsessed with computers and later impressed his friends by figuring out how to hack the school's web-browser restrictions to play games online. Today, the 27-year-old Mora is a programmer with ambitions to attend graduate school at MIT. But first he has to do something about Donald Trump.
Mora is a co-founder of Undocumedia, a nonprofit project that began in 2012 as a way to raise awareness about DACA, short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy that currently shields more than 750,000 young undocumented Americans from deportation. Over the past year or so—while Trump's virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric propelled him to the White House—Undocumedia has evolved into an influential online presence, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook. It posts everything from funny memes about immigration to #KnowYourRights livestreams where attorneys answer viewer questions about how to avoid deportation.
"I'm not going to give [Trump] credit for our growth," Mora said. "I think it's people's social awakening. He's only a symptom of what's wrong with the United States, with deep-rooted racism and xenophobia, the influence of money in politics, the rising gap in income, the problems of the prison-industrial complex—I think what we've seen is this awakening."
One of Trump's first moves as president was to sign an executive order that makes virtually anyone who is in the country without authorization a priority for deportation, reversing an Obama-era policy that focused enforcement on criminal offenders. Immigration agents responded aggressively, even detaining several people who, like Mora, qualified for DACA protection because they came to the US as children. Those young people—often called DREAMers after the DREAM Act, a bill that, had it passed in 2010, would have given up to 2.1 million undocumented youths a path to citizenship—are at the forefront of the resistance against Trump.
Like the current president, who weaponized Twitter as a way to attack his opponents and control the news cycle, DREAMers are harnessing the power of social media to reshape the narrative around immigration while forging alliances with other social-justice groups. "We learned from our mistakes," Mora told me. "One of the major reasons immigration reform failed to pass is because we didn't have the support of other communities." He mentioned a recent viral Undocumedia post about a police-brutality incident in Anaheim, California, that created a collective sense of outrage. "We're in this together," he said, "and if one community is under attack, we're all under attack."
The DREAMer movement began in the early 2000s with a push for tuition equality at state colleges, but it grew as deportations ramped up, first under George W. Bush and later under Obama. I spoke to Cristina Jiménez, co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, which describes itself as the "largest immigrant-youth-led organization in the country," who told me that early on, DREAMers both queer and straight adopted the LGBTQ rights movement tactic of coming out, sharing deeply personal stories that sometimes went viral on YouTube and Facebook.
"Many of us went through a process of being really fearful about us being deported, about our families being deported," Jiménez said. "Eventually, we found the courage to declare ourselves as undocumented and unafraid." Mora was among those who defiantly outed himself as undocumented, publicly sharing his story for the first time in 2008 while he was an 18-year-old community-college student. At the time, he was worried that immigration agents would use the information to find him and his family, but as we cruised the streets of his adopted hometown in March, he told the tale nonchalantly. The plan, he said, was never to come to America, but repeated incidents of domestic violence—culminating with his father threatening to kill his mother—forced him and his mother to flee when he was 11.
"We tried to run away once, but my mother realized she wasn't prepared," Mora recalled. Their second attempt at escape was successful, but life in America wasn't easy at first. Mora's mother scraped by working odd jobs, and the kids initially struggled in school. In fact, the first middle school they visited turned Mora and his siblings away because they didn't speak any English."People talk about the US being the land of opportunity and freedom and justice, and that's true but only to a certain extent," he said.
Mora estimates that at least 70 percent of his classmates at the school he ended up attending were undocumented, and he says the fear of being deported was "on our minds all the time." His grades improved along with his English, however, and he eventually graduated near the top of his high school class. He studied computer science at a local community college and got involved in organizing for the immigrant rights movement. With the help of the California DREAM Act, a state law similar to the one rejected by the Senate, that offers financial aid to undocumented students who meet certain criteria, Mora enrolled at UCLA and graduated in 2015 with a degree in political science.
In May 2013, the White House was trying to push an immigration bill through Congress, and President Obama invited seven young immigration activists to the Oval Office, including several DREAMers. Mora was selected to attend after being nominated by a California immigrant rights group but considered rejecting the invitation because of Obama's record on deportations. Ultimately, he decided to go because it would be "a great opportunity to hold him accountable" for his promises on immigration reform. In November of that year, he participated in a Bay Area "hackathon," an event where teams of programmers compete to build software from scratch in less than 24 hours. The competition was for DREAMers only, and Mora led a squad that designed an app called Push4Reform, which allows users to easily contact their representatives in Congress and lobby for immigration reform. The idea won the "Best Advocacy" prize, and Mora enjoyed one-on-one meetings with the hackathon organizers, which included the founders of Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Mora's app is still featured on FWD.us, an organization founded by Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley leaders to campaign for an overhaul of US immigration laws.
The following year he joined Undocumedia, co-founded by another Los Angeles-area college student, Iván Ceja and their friend Yvonne Gomez. It was praised as the "voice of undocumented young people" by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who came out as undocumented."It's by undocumented people, for undocumented people," Vargas told me.
Asked whether he worries that Undocumedia is only preaching to the choir and not convincing any Trump supporters to change their views, Mora said he's focused on empowering his own community. During one day we spent together, he hosted a livestream that educated young undocumented Californians about how to apply for state financial aid, and then he and Ceja met with a public-health group to coordinate a campaign to "break down healthcare for people to understand how it functions and what services are available to undocumented people."
He plans to apply to MIT's Media Lab this fall, where he wants to "explore how to use tech to increase civic engagement." For now, he's focused on countering anti-immigration rhetoric. He pointed out that Trump's tactic of painting immigrants as criminals has created the perception that only certain undocumented people should get legal status. Mora wants to change the "narrative of good immigrants and bad immigrants."
"In the undocumented youth population, not everyone is going to be a 4.0 student. We're basically saying only those who excelled in school deserve a path to citizenship. That should not be the case."
UPDATE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Undocumedia was founded in 2014 by Justino Mora. The organization was created in 2012 by Iván Ceja and Yvonne Gomez; Mora joined in 2014 as a co-founder.