By Hannah Gonzalez, Medill, Immigrant Connect

On Nov. 10, Evelyn Venegas gazed at Capitol Hill with tears in her eyes. A participant in the March for DACA, she had marched all the way from Baltimore to be in Washington, D.C. Surrounded by love and support from more than 100 other marchers, Evelyn felt a hug from behind from one of her cohorts. Without saying a word, the pair continued hugging and crying as they walked the few remaining blocks to the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Court was hearing oral arguments over the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). DACA was put in place by former President Obama in June 2012 to protect from deportation immigrant youth, who’d been brought to the United States by their parents.

“I think it was the best place I could be in because I was surrounded by people who are directly impacted by this,” Venegas says. “When it comes time to throw down, we will show up and be there for each other. That’s how I felt when I saw Capitol Hill and I got that hug from someone I don’t even know. We didn’t have to say anything. We just knew what that moment meant for us because we shared similar struggles.”

Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo credit: ICIRR Illinois)

DACA allows undocumented youth to apply to college, get jobs and continue their lives without living in fear that they will be deported. DACA does not provide a path to citizenship for its recipients. As of June 2019, there were 660,880 active DACA recipients in the United States.

Participants were also marching to advocate for Temporary Protected Status  (TPS). TPS is a lesser-known protection program for immigrants who aren’t able to return to their home countries due to extenuating circumstances, such as natural disasters or ongoing armed conflict.

Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo credit: ICIRR Illinois)

The March for DACA and TPS commenced in New York, NY and continued to the Supreme Court for a total of 230 miles. The march culminated in a large rally in front of the Court on Nov. 12.

In 2017, President Trump attempted to terminate DACA, claiming that the introduction of DACA by executive order without approval from Congress was unconstitutional. The courts blocked the termination, allowing time for a decision to be reached after hearing legal challenges. The challenges were to culminate on  Nov. 12.

The DACA cause is very personal to Venegas, who works closely with immigrants as the Family Support Network Coordinator at ICIRR, (the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights).

“The focus of the program is to support undocumented people,” Venegas says. She oversees a 24/7 Family Support Network hotline offered by ICIRR to which individuals can report ICE raids.

Citlalli Bueno-Lares, the Immigration Organizer at Enlace Chicago, also attended the march. She began the march in New York, working as a volunteer marshal throughout the journey and keeping spirits high during rallies. She says the overall energy of the group was surprising and very motivating, especially upon arrival at the Court.

What was behind the effort?

“As we were marching to the actual Supreme Court, everyone was chanting louder,” she says. “People could definitely hear us. They were coming out of their houses. It was very, very emotional. Some people were crying. It was a long journey and we really got close, and I feel like we’re a family now.”

Like Venegas, Bueno-Lares also works closely with immigrants, running a leadership workshop for adults and youth at Enlace. The march is extremely personal to her because she’s a DACA recipient herself.

“This cause will affect my future. But, it affects more than just DACA recipients themselves. It affects their families and friends, people who depend on them, people who work or study, says Bueno-Lares “The campaign was also focused on ‘abolish[ing] ICE’ and ‘citizenship for all,’ which was another reason that I really wanted to do it because I work with a lot of youth who didn’t get the opportunity to apply for DACA.”

Social media mattered

Courtesy of CHIRLA.

Both women heard about the march through their respective organizations, ICIRR and Enlace Chicago. The social media coverage prior to this event was extensive, especially by the group CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles).

According to Luis Tadeo, the Digital Media Coordinator for CHIRLA and a DACA recipient, CHIRLA promoted the event online by creating a Facebook event for the march. They also promoted the event locally through flyer distribution. Both of the approaches, according to Tadeo, made a large impact.

“I think the organizations that came together have very strong presences on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram,” he says. “Giving people in-advance notice was very successful, and when you pair that with an on-the-ground campaign like flyering, that turns into a cohesive and successful digital strategy.”

The march was led chiefly by NAKASEC  (National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, Inc.), Make the Road New York, the New York Immigration Coalition, CHIRLA and others, according to America’s Voice.

Sam Yu, the Communications Coordinator for NAKASEC, says their group’s strategy prior to the event focused most on linking up with other organizations to create a broad network and target audience and on young DACA recipients, over common social media platforms.

“We focused mostly on outreach over Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,” Yu says. “We used social media to ask for donations and to get people to support us, and to post our flyers with all the information people would need to know to sign up, donate or send supplies.”

In terms of live coverage, CHIRLA was also very active in covering the event as it happened, going in with an action plan of which aspects they wanted to highlight for viewers, both physical and emotional. The result was an extremely creative and thought-provoking series in Spanish.

“On Facebook we had what we called ‘soul/sole check,’” Tadeo says. “We did a bit of word-play with the word ‘soul’ but also the word ‘sole,’ as in the soles of your feet. During the march, we would have marchers describe how they felt in their souls, but also the pain they were experiencing physically on the soles of their feet.”

Yu says that NAKASEC’s live coverage of the march focused mainly on profile pieces that highlighted individual experiences of the marchers, telling the story of someone new each day.

“We had some of the marchers talk about their experiences and finish the sentence, ‘I march because,’” Yu says. “We promoted this to build up momentum and personality. This would give the people following the march a face and a name, a person to follow in the days leading up to the court hearing.”

Yu emphasizes that the most important part of the coverage was the real, authentic storytelling from the marchers that could be shared with the community following the event.

“It was really about the people we had on the ground and about what kind of genuine content we could put out there. It’s all about authenticity. We also linked some of their reasons for marching to larger issues in immigration, which was really beneficial in terms of the greater context of the march.”

Fear factors in 

Though the social media outreach was extensive prior to the event, both Venegas and Bueno-Lares were hesitant to participate for fear that doing so would put them in danger. Bueno-Lares, for example, worried about the political climate surrounding immigration, specifically due to recent acts of white supremacist hatred in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen.

“I was in a meeting with one of the rapid response teams in Little Village about [the violence in Pilsen], so I was definitely worried about my safety,” she says. “But once I joined the team and really saw all the work that had been put into it, and talked with NAKASEC leaders about those issues, that made me feel a lot safer.”

Venegas feared for her safety at the march based on the national attitude about immigrants.

“We are a target of this nation,” she says. “We are targeted because we are people of color. Because of managing this hotline, I know that people get targeted because they are brown. They’ve been stopped while riding bikes and asked, ‘Where’s your I.D., are you a US citizen?’ If you look a certain color or if you speak Spanish, you’re targeted.”

She acknowledges that she lives with fear every day, and says that denying herself the opportunity to march would be, in turn, denying herself a seat at the table.

“A lot of people get worried and they think that if they put themselves in these situations [like the march], it’s going to make things worse,” she says thoughtfully. “Yes, that may be true, but at the same time if we don’t do anything and we live in fear, then we will never really be at the table getting our voices heard.”

The march sticks to a daily routine

Each day, Bueno-Lares, Venegas and between 20 and 120 other marchers would wake up around 6 o’clock, have breakfast, and pack up their belongings. After breakfast, the morning debrief was conducted, going through the routes for the day, stretching and planning for potential weather conflicts.

At 8:30 am, the marching commenced, with stops every 3-4 hours for a break, and continued until nightfall. Two vans accompanied them at all times, one ahead and one behind, and transported the marchers to the place they would spend the night if they didn’t arrive before dark.

Bueno-Lares participated in the march as a marshal, a position for which she volunteered upon arriving in New York. Her primary role was to keep people in line during the long stretches of marching, at times staying behind and making sure everyone was okay, and other times leading the group, following the GPS and shouting formation commands.

The group stopped for rallies in Philadelphia on Nov. 1 and in Baltimore on Nov. 8. “During those rallies, people would chant, play drums, speak about what they were doing and give testimonies,” Bueno-Lares says. “There were about 20 core marchers that did the whole thing, and in the end we had about 120 people.”

Marchers adapt to 287(g) counties

Both women said that the overall energy and sense of community during the march made them feel welcomed and safe. However, there were moments of tension when the group passed through so-called 287(g) counties, which are counties that have agreements with the federal government to allow local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcement. For example, in situations in which ICE would normally be called to detain a person who doesn’t have a green card, sheriffs or other local law enforcement officers in a 287(g) area would have the ability to detain the person without the presence of ICE.

When passing through these counties during the march, any law enforcement officer would have had the ability to stop members of the group, ask for identification, and detain and arrest anyone who didn’t have it.

“In the morning debriefs, we would cover whether or not we were going through a 287(g) county that day,” Bueno-Lares recalls. “Those times were nerve-wracking.”

The campaign is bigger than DACA

In the days after the march, a series of vigils were held outside the Supreme Court to continue to raise awareness for the cause. Bueno-Lares says that each day, multiple protest groups would come together to sing, dance and chant.

“It was just a lot of fun. We would play drums and dance and sing from 12-2 every day,” Bueno-Lares says. “When you’re having fun, everyone wants to join in on the fun, especially with music. Music can really unify people, regardless of what language it’s in.”

Venegas, Bueno-Lares, Tadeo and Yu all say that the march was very effective in raising national awareness for DACA and TPS. They also agree that the march was about more than DACA. They want to draw attention to large-scale immigration reform, the harmful “Dreamer” rhetoric and the national narrative.

Tadeo says he has two core takeaways from the march, for participants and the nation at large. Primarily, he hopes to encourage DACA recipients to renew their status. He also hopes that the march was able to draw attention to major immigration reform and the “citizenship for all” movement.

Bueno-Lares acknowledges that though DACA needs to be protected, the language and perceptions surrounding it need to be changed.

“When DACA came out, the term ‘dreamer’ became something used characteristically to describe a high school-aged youth, undocumented, in tons of extracurriculars, valedictiorian, who needed DACA to get to college and get a career,” Bueno-Lares  explains. “That was the story always used by the media and by politicians. And that really just excluded everyone else. It excluded parents, anyone who had any sort of record. And it also threw parents under the bus for bringing their children here.”

The next steps are to change the narrative

Bueno-Lares says the immigrant community overall needs to work to change this narrative.

“That’s something we’re trying to break away from as a community, because it’s not good to divide that way,” she says. “If we’re going to fight for anything, it has to include the entire marginalized community.”

Venegas agrees. “This is not just the fight for the program DACA and its recipients,” she says. “The point is to make people recognize that DACA is not enough. DACA does not provide a path to citizenship. DACA is a Band-Aid.”

She also firmly believes that the march highlighted everything that is wrong with the nation’s immigration system, everything that the community is ready to change.

“To think that this march was only for DACA would be missing the point,” Venegas says. “It’s about protecting the soul of this country. It’s the beginning of the immigrant conversation.”