An Interview with Janelle Pérez by Dayna Long
Janelle Pérez is an advocate and volunteer with the Community Immigration Law Center and a member of DSA. She has been involved in the fight for immigrant rights for the last decade. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
DL: On June 18, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration does not have sufficient justification to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Can you tell me why this was such a big moment for you and your family?
JP: My husband is undocumented and he’s a DACA recipient. It’s been a long year of us trying to navigate what would happen if the Supreme Court decision didn’t fall in our favor. His DACA was going to be expiring next year. We’ve also applied for him to be a Green Card resident, since we are married. So it was like, what is going to happen when your DACA expires but we haven’t heard back from your application? Does this mean that you’re going to have to leave the country? And what does that look like emotionally, financially? Those are things that caused a lot of stress and a lot of panic. To see myself in a situation where I would have to separate from my husband, I think that’s a very high emotional toll.
So once the decision was made we both were very happy because what this means for us – this will eliminate any type of separation from myself and from his family. This also means that he will be able to renew his DACA. As of now, it’s been clear that anyone who has had DACA can renew it. The uncertainty still stands on whether or not new applicants or someone who has never applied for DACA before will be able to under this ruling, and the advanced parole.
Advanced parole for DACA is basically allowing the DACA recipient to leave the country for emergency circumstances, like if a family member passes away. I know there’s been some circumstances where [recipients] have used that advanced parole to study abroad if they were students in the University. But then when you would re-enter the United States it would be legal.
For us, it’s being able to renew his DACA and being able to live without the fear of him being deported or of him having to self-deport if his DACA would have expired early next year.
DL: Obviously this SCOTUS decision is a product of many, many years of work that started before Obama announced the DACA program in 2012. What sort of efforts have you been involved in? Whose work have you admired?
JP: This is work that I was doing way before I met my husband, when I was still in Chicago. One of the initial calls for action for undocumented students was the Dream Act. That started in 2009. I became more involved in the Dream Act in 2010 all the way up to 2017 because there’s been a consistent effort of trying to pass this bill in Congress which would technically be a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students, undocumented individuals.
It’s something that I’ve always been passionate about because I’ve grown up in a privileged home in a privileged place where both my parents are citizens and I’m also a citizen. I wanted to use my voice and my privilege to be able to fight and be an ally to those who weren’t citizens and who were in a situation where they may not have a pathway to be here. A lot of them are people who I grew up with. I never thought, “Oh he’s undocumented and she’s not undocumented.” We were all raised in the same community.
So I did a lot of work locally in Chicago through an organization called the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Locally, here in Madison, me and my husband – my husband doesn’t like to be very prominent about [the work he does] because of his situation right now. He tries to keep it really minimized so he has a better chance of not raising any flags during any of this application process. But he is an advocate. He does work with a lot of youth in Madison, especially in the Latinx community.
I do more of the front line work, too. So like two years ago when ICE came and did raids in Madison, I was helping with the response team making sure that if I spotted ICE I let this group of people know. We were part of a task force that was letting people know where ICE was or where they planned on being.
I also volunteer for the Community Immigration Law Center on the East Side of Madison. I do a lot of advocacy work there for the immigrant community. I also do Spanish interpreting for the lawyers who do not speak Spanish.
DL: People are already pointing out that the Supreme Court decision is a reprieve, but not a solution. It doesn’t block the Trump administration from trying to end DACA again, though it seems unlikely that he’ll try it before the November election and of course the hope is that Trump will be defeated in November. But what would it take to end this ongoing uncertainty for DACA recipients? What needs to happen?
JP: We need a more solidified permanent solution. DACA is not that. What DACA does is, under certain circumstances, people can apply for DACA. You have to be a certain age, you have to have gone to school here, have good moral standing. And for me, the whole “good moral standing” piece is just – it’s problematic. There’s certain criteria that you have to fit to be able to apply for DACA. Other undocumented individuals are ineligible for it, so they still are undocumented without any support, in a sense, without being able to go and work because DACA grants you a two-year work permit. It gives you a temporary driver’s license. [People who are ineligible for DACA] are still at risk of deportation.
DACA recipients are as well, even though the government says that it will halt deportations for DACA recipients, but we’ve seen in the news that it doesn’t. We’ve seen from personal narratives that it doesn’t. So it’s a not a very structured or supportive program for undocumented individuals.
Going back to a more solidified, more permanent solution, that’s exactly what the Dream Act was about – that pathway to citizenship. If you’ve been in the United States for over a certain period of time, if you’ve been here since you were one or two years old and this is what you consider your home and you’ve done everything here, we need to make sure that you feel that you are not only home, but to protect you. Because if you were to go back to your “country of origin,” where your family comes from – that’s not something that is realistic for people either.
The reasons why – like I said, undocumented individuals, DACA recipients, are tax payers. They go to school. They work. They’re paying more out of pocket for things than we typically would. They don’t have access to a lot of federal programs. My husband had to pay out of pocket his first year at UW Madison. Not only did he have to pay out pocket for that because he’s not eligible for any type of government loans or grants, he was also considered a non-resident student so that’s another, larger chunk of money that he has to pay. At UW Madison you’re considered a non-resident student if you’re undocumented. You’re looking at $50-60 thousand a year. He saved up to be able to go for one year. That’s not realistic for a lot of people.
And immigrants contribute a lot to the US economy. From the perspective of a capitalist country, it would be in their favor to grant these individuals a pathway to citizenship for the economic flow of the country.
DL: There’s a narrative that I see a lot around Dreamers as being sort of model, high-achieving individuals, like when you read articles where DACA recipients are quoted, they’re doctors and lawyers and scientists and their academic and professional accomplishments are always listed. I understand that this cuts against xenophobic and white supremacist narratives about immigrants being undesirable, but it also makes me feel funny since we don’t have conversations about what people who were born in the US have accomplished to deserve to stay. What are your thoughts about this narrative?
JP: It’s always great to acknowledge the accomplishments of any individual. We live in a country where we strive for a better life, or a fair shot at what would be considered the American Dream. We have to consider that not all DACA recipients have this kind of pathway or this opportunity to be doctors, be lawyers, go to college. Realistically, with all these factors, some universities you have to pay out of state or international student tuition. You’re not eligible for any kind of grants or loans unless that’s privatized. You have to recognize that there’s multiple types of DACA recipients.
The reason why these certain [recipients] are on a pedestal is because we live in a meritocracy society. There’s this need of a hierachy and competition, to raise and set a standard, like these are the good individuals, these are the good undocumented individuals, these are the great DACA recipients because they’re doing something good in their life. You also have DACA recipients and undocumented individuals who are skilled workers and we don’t talk about that and how that’s also very necessary. Yeah, we need doctors, we need lawyers, we need these people with degrees. We also need plumbers, we need mechanics, we need people who are in construction. People who can continue to help us in other ways.
When any immigrant applies for any type of legal status in the US you always have to be approved or show that you’re of good moral standing. What does that look like in American society? If you’re worthy to be here, can you financially support yourself, kind of like what can you give us?
DL: You really answered this question earlier when you talked about the capitalist reasons for supporting a pathway to citizenship. It’s a mentality of thinking about people in terms of what’s good for capital instead of what’s good for people.
JP: Right. Exactly. And that was one of the factors that the Dream Act – why it wasn’t agreed on by Congress. It wasn’t as capitalistic. It was more about what would benefit Dreamers versus what would benefit the country. Whereas DACA was saying, “Only certain types of skills and characteristics will make you eligible to apply.” If it really did benefit DACA recipients, there would be a pathway to citizenship or a pathway to a legal residency. That’s not happening. Every two years, your status is in limbo again because you don’t know whether or not one, the program is going to stay and two, your renewal for DACA will stay
There just needs to be an overhaul of the immigration system in the US because the way it’s structured is based on how it benefits the country. And not necessarily how we can help individuals that we fucked over. If you go back in history and how we have colonized Latin America, and not only that but other different parts of the world, we were the reason why individuals could not stay in their countries any longer.
My father is from El Salvador. So, during the time he left as a child, during the civil war in the 80s, it was very imperialist. The US came in and trained soldiers in these countries. It wasn’t just El Salvador. We’re looking at Honduras. Guatemala. We’re looking at all of these other Latin American countries and the US literally flipped that country over and a lot of people didn’t feel safe and they left. And where do they go? They go to the United States. So it’s a vicious cycle of our colonialism, our invasions. There’s a reason why all these immigrants are coming to this country. It’s not fair that we’re doing all this damage and all these atrocities and then people come here and we say they have to be worthy of our values, or our economy.
We’re going to be seeing this type of immigration and these types of issues for who knows how long if it doesn’t change. There definitely needs to be more efforts – and not only completely changing the immigration system but also our relationships and what we’ve done with other countries. Because this is going to continue to happen.
DL: We’re living through a moment of really heightened struggle for Black liberation and some extremely radical demands – Defund Police, Abolish the Police, Abolish Prisons – are suddenly up for consideration in the mainstream. It has reminded me of the importance of having the far-reaching, revolutionary kinds of demands in mind in all of our movements. What are those types of demands in the fight for immigrant justice?
JP: The ultimate aim is all these individuals, all these students and people who grew up in the US, who’ve only known this place as their home, they deserve a chance at becoming a US citizen. A chance to be able to practice their voting rights, to contribute in this country at a deeper level than just economically.
The detention centers – that’s not necessary. We’re separating children, we’re separating families. The only reason detention centers are really in place – I mean, in part to treat immigrants as unlawful in the eyes of this country but also for profit. A lot of these detention centers are privately owned and they purposefully fill these places up as much as they can for profit. They don’t need to be here. The conditions of detention centers are god awful. Detainees are not being treated like humans, they’re being treated as less than animals. That’s not necessary, that’s not needed. That’s not helping our country and it’s not helping any immigrant. They just need to be eliminated.
The other thing that I was thinking about is abolishing ICE completely. The purpose of ICE and why ICE was created was to profile and unlawfully detain and deport people. We’ve seen that time and time again. I don’t think that having a force like ICE is going to be very helpful in this country, it just invokes a lot of fear for the immigrant community. Instead of trying to make this community more fearful, we need to strategize to find a way to make them feel more welcome, and find more ways and resources to help their situation, and not to try to get them out of here because of something that was out of their control. Like a three year old who came here, who is undocumented, that’s not their fault.
One other thing – right now, anyone who is trying to apply for asylum – there’s this “return to Mexico” policy. you can’t even qualify to be seen for an asylum case unless you have asked for asylum from every single country you have crossed.
So for example, if you are from El Salvador and you’re going to the US to find asylum because you cannot live in El Salvador anymore – you’re afraid because of the violence, the gangs, the cartels – you have to go to Guatemala first and seek asylum. And you have to have proof that you’ve gone there first. And if they say, no, we can’t give you asylum, then you can go to the next country and ask. So let’s say someone from El Salvador goes straight to Mexico, they’re going to ask if you went to your neighboring countries first to ask for asylum and if you have no proof, then you’re not allowed at all. You have no shot of getting asylum in the US.
So that’s really problematic because if you try to find asylum in a neighboring country, the security of your life is not really improved because all of your neighboring countries are in that same turmoil. It’s terrible. Terrible policy that is leaving a lot of people dying and dead at the border. Or a lot of people, from what I’m hearing, are paying “coyotes” to take them back to their country because they can’t wait any longer. Or they’re just stuck because Mexico can only support so much as well.
When we were looking at the caravans crossing through Latin America, at some point there was some resistance within Mexico but parts of Mexico supported having these refugees come into their country. But Mexico can only support so much because they’re also going through a lot of issues. Something needs to change when people arrive at the US border because we do have the resources to be able to help and support these individuals. We have a system that can allow immigrants to come into the country. And help them build a better life for their families and for themselves.
DL: I think we first connected because both of us have politics that really fall to the left of the mainstream. I’m interested in your thoughts on the political scene right now and how the Democratic Party has failed on some of these questions and what has to change.
JP: I do not support the Democratic Party. The deeper I go with my advocacy and work, especially with immigration, but it’s also shifted to the Black Lives Matter movement right now and Black liberation, it’s evident that the Democratic Party does not give a shit about Black and brown people. They do not. There’s been no effort from that party to really develop any kind of laws or any type of protection for these minorities. It’s very frustrating when we see the Democratic Party give up when they try to fight for even basic human rights for us.
I’m at a point where, you know, when Bernie dropped out of the race, a lot of people were like, “Well, we’re going to have to vote for a lesser of two evils,” but if we continue with that pattern nothing is going to change for us. We’re still going to be treated the way that we’re treated, we’re still not going to be put as a priority for a lot of issues that really affect us that haven’t been addressed. When we talk about education, when we talk about healthcare, when we talk about job security, food security, poverty, it’s not something that is in [the Democratic Party’s] agenda.
If we could get rid of the Democratic Party that would be beautiful. I would love to knock them down and reform and restructure a new party that is for the people. But that’s not realistic in this society and in this government. What we can do and what we’ve seen is at the more local level is putting in people with our beliefs and our views and our justice in their hands.
But [we need to be] more mobile and more grassroots about it because I feel like, although we use places like Facebook and Twitter as a platform to talk about how shitty this is, how shitty this election will be and how shitty the Democratic Party is, we’re only attracting a certain demographic or a certain chunk of the community. We do really need to practice advocacy at the local level, at the physical level, where we’re actually trying to organize within communities and educate them. Not only educate them but also let them speak about what their issues are, and what they want to see within their own communities and their own neighborhoods, so I think that that is a start.
I hope that with all of these awful events happening that there is a positive light to this. Hopefully with all of this that’s happening, people will start reflecting and thinking about what needs to change in this country to better all of our situations. At some point, at every level, everyone was impacted by COVID. Everyone is going to be impacted by this election and these current decisions by the Supreme Court so I think people really need to take the time to reflect on what really needs to change. This impacted everybody.
DL: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you wish that I had?
JP: As someone whose parents were immigrants who came here and I was born here so I have citizenship, I’m not any different than my friends and family who are undocumented. We need to start unpacking what that looks like as a society because if you see beyond labeling – we love to label in this country – these are just people who want to work hard and want an equal shot at school, at life, at being able to build something meaningful for themselves, whatever that is, in this country.
If people are looking for opportunities to help, there are tremendous amounts of pro-bono lawyers and non-profit organizations that have advocates who are doing so much work, so many cases. These people need a lot of support, they need volunteers. It could be as simple as making copies, being a receptionist, being a translator. Those are things that I’ve seen from my own experience volunteering at the law clinic and also working with other lawyers.
These are things that are needed. It’s not a solution but for the time being, if people want to get involved those are the ways to get involved because that’s where a lot of the work is being done. A lot of people are getting granted access to the US through these non-profits and lawyers that are working around the clock to get people out of the border and out of the detention centers and here to get an asylum case.