In El Paso, Immigrant Youth Are Changing the Face of Border Activism
A group called Soñando Juntos is building something unique: an intersectional coalition fighting for undocumented people.
Custom illustration by Zeke Peña.
On November 17, 2017, in the small city of Socorro, about a dozen students from the University of Texas at El Paso protested their local congressman. They carried colorful signs, a hand-painted banner that read “Education Not Deportation,” and chanted that those lame enough not to be dancing with them were probably with the Border Patrol. The students ' target was Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a third of the US-Mexico border. They berated him for not advocating on behalf of DREAMers—people brought to the country as children—as well as his ongoing support for deploying military technology on the border.
The modest protest was just one of many pointing to a larger trend of activism led by fronterizxs — young folks who have lived their entire lives on the border and are increasingly joining boisterous, immigrant-led youth movements. In fact, the loud and public demonstrations represent a watermark moment in the longer arc of the movement for immigrant justice. The Texas-based group Soñando Juntos, organized by fronterizxs, is building something special by ensuring their movement is intersectional, connecting the struggle for immigrant justice with queer liberation, racial justice, and a critique of American colonialism.
Soñando Juntos's biggest priority is organizing to demand a clean DREAM act: a permanent legal solution for the roughly 800,000 young people granted a temporary reprieve by Barack Obama in 2012 that doesn't include a border wall or new anti-immigrant policies. They’ve staged direct actions at congressional offices, led marches, and organized fronterizx youth to travel to Washington, DC, to demand changes at the highest levels. Their strength is in getting undocumented youth to build alliances with each other, and in using the personal experiences of their members to inspire collective action.
A s co-leader of Soñando Juntos, Alonzo Mendoza, 28, put it of the situation under Trump, “Even though I'm not an immigrant, I'm a queer person of color, and my other identities are being attacked."
The youth are banding together to support each other’s rights despite their varying legal status. “When we started organizing it felt like there was nothing in El Paso for immigrant youth. We basically started from zero,” added Roberto Valadez, a 24-year-old college graduate. “We asked ourselves why immigrant youth in an 80 percent Latino community weren’t organized here like they were in Chicago, LA, or New York. And we think that’s because of border militarization.”
Mexicans on the US side of the US-Mexico border have had to keep an eye open for the Border Patrol—known as la migra—since 1924. Yet in the past 30 years, there’s been an unprecedented surge in border militarization. Since 1993, the Border Patrol’s budget has increased tenfold, and the number of agents has doubled. Meanwhile, the border has become a dumping ground for a host of military technologies ranging from “Predator Drones” to heat detection sensors—much of which is repurposed equipment that had been used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And a string of checkpoints surrounding cities like El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico, keep even legal residents feeling watched and unsettled.
Valadez entered activism in the days following Donald Trump’s election, a time of extreme insecurity for immigrants and border communities of all stripes. In El Paso, the local border patrol union had voted to back the national union’s endorsement of the Republican race-baiter. Statewide, legislators pushed through SB4, a law which (if it isn't permanently struck down) would have fined local authorities who refused to comply with ICE and allowed cops to ask anyone about their legal status for any reason at any time.
Valadez and Mendoza quickly organized Soñando Juntos, or Dreaming Together, and began recruiting immigrant youth to join their ranks.
Born in Juárez, Mexico in 1993, Valadez came to El Paso when he was one. He grew up in the early years of intensive border policing, when agents poured into urban border communities during “Operation Hold the Line.” His charisma is subtle. At first glance, he's a normal guy—average height, wears simple T-shirts, blue jeans, maybe a flannel here and there. But when you catch him on the political landscape, he's a different person. His fearlessness attracts people—especially other immigrant youth. He is wholly unafraid of sharing his status, and began doing so at a time when elder organizers were urging him to keep certain details under the radar.
When President Obama initiated DACA, it paved the way for major changes in Valadez’s life. The program enabled him to enroll in school, find legal employment and for the first time, feel confident enough to speak openly about his status and use it as a tool for social change.
Still, recruiting other immigrant activists was not an easy task, one that's become way harder under Trump. “The biggest barrier for us has been finding other undocumented youth that are willing to be vocal,” Valadez said, “We already knew all the stories of abuse and all the disparities in the detainment centers, but this newer climate is terrifying for people.”
Roberto Valadez (left) and Noe Labrado (right) of Soñando Juntos speaking to demonstrators at a protest in El Paso, TX. Illustration by Zeke Peña.
According to Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, “People are afraid to buy groceries or take their kids to school, because if they are confronted by this apparatus the consequence is separation, detention, deportation.”
Still, Soñando Juntos used Facebook and word of mouth to slowly build a network of committed foot soldiers in the fall of 2017. The group is part of the umbrella immigrant-lead organization United We Dream that has an estimated 400,000 members across the country. Their greatest weapon has been collaboration: Valadez helped found a coalition of student groups called Education Not Deportation, which launched a campus organizing campaign.
It was during this feverish time of organizing that he met Claudia Yoli. Yoli, 25, moved to El Paso from Venezuela when she was eight years old. Like Valadez, she grew up in a militarized border shaped by checkpoints and intensified border policing. “We had to be really careful about saying we were immigrants, but because of our accents, it was clear we were not from El Paso," she told me.
As Yoli came of age, she applied for a green card but was denied and had to turn down the chance to go to her dream college due to her ineligibility for federal financial aid, she recalled. In fact, by the time of her entry into the DACA program, Yoli was already in removal proceedings. She channeled these experiences into activism—working not just on immigration issues but also reproductive rights and voter education. When she joined Soñando Juntos, she was already a seasoned activist, ready to recruit others and share her story.
“Because we are a hyper militarized community, ours is a cultural type of work," she explained. "There has been so much stigma around being undocumented, so as young people stepping forward with our stories, we create change.”
At marches, Valadez, Yoli, and Mendoza rally the troops in chants and carry their banner. When Valadez steps in front of the microphone, he enthralls the audience with his honesty: "My name is Roberto Valadez, I am undocumented, and I am a DACA recipient."
Three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine activists making such proclamations publicly in El Paso. But by declaring their reality, Valadez and Yoli are working to destroy the stigma associated with legal status.
Soñando Juntos, along with the group Education Not Deportation, launched a petition for the University of Texas El Paso to designate itself as a Sanctuary University, pledge support for international students, and permanently eject Border Patrol from campus. The latter demand was an especially crucial one for organizers, who were troubled by the increasingly common migra bike patrols disrupting campus life. The students organized a successful walk-out that drew over 100 faculty and staff on November 9, 2017—a remarkable feat at a commuter school without much of an activist presence. For Mendoza, this was a seminal moment.
“After the walk-out, so many people wanted to speak at the rally," he said. It really showed that there’s a lot of interest in social justice with the youth in El Paso and if we cultivate that culture here, it has potential to grow.”
This youth movement is a non-violent one, settling on noisy, public protests designed to demand the attention of the general public, as well as to disrupt "business as usual." Such tactics have also been a mainstay of movements from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the latter using non-violent direct action to bring attention to police brutality and issues affecting African-American communities. Nonviolence has also long been a staple of Chicano organizing, but in recent memory, many immigration-related organizations took a more cautious approach to protest, opting instead for softer political demonstrations like vigils and press conferences or bringing constituents to city councils.
Despite the danger of arrest and the consequences that could have for some of their own, Soñando Juntos is all about performative, spontaneous, confrontational protest. They actively call out politicians who fail to deliver on promises and intentionally try to create a raucous atmosphere. Their chants are provocative—directly critiquing the system of deportations and consistently slamming groups like ICE and Border Patrol. This unabashed style has put new pressure on local politicians, school administrators, and the press to take them more seriously.
“Historically, a lot of organizations in El Paso have been advocating for immigrant rights, but Soñando Juntos was the first group that really brought young DREAMers and undocumented youth together in the community," Yoli said.
Valadez added, “We’re are creating a culture where people are no longer afraid or ashamed of who they are.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this post misspelled the name of Claudia Yoli. The post has been updated.
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