Student network to share immigrant struggle

Voces del East Bay gives undocumented students online outlet

By Ryan Geller, Advocate Staff

A group of undocumented Contra Costa College students and their allies are building a local community support network for Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients and others facing immigration issues.

The committee, aptly named, Voces del East Bay, is creating social media spaces for people to share their stories and information about immigration, Lizbeth Gonzalez, a member of the committee, said.

“We want people to know that we are here and that they are not alone. We want people to know that they can come out of the shadows because there are many of us,” Gonzalez said.

Voces del East Bay began as a response to the termination of the DACA program by President Donald Trump’s administration on Sept. 5.

DACA give qualifying undocumented immigrants a two-year renewable work permit and exemption from deportation.

La Raza studies professor Agustin Palacios, and members of the La Raza Student Union, initiated the idea of a media committee to support dreamers and their families.

Since then, CCC students, both documented and undocumented have started pages under the Voces del East Bay handle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.    

The idea is not only to share information that undocumented community members need, but also to share the personal accounts of those who are affected by U.S. immigration policy, Luis Ledesma, a member of Voces del East Bay, said.

“People can relate to stories and feel some type of relief that they are not alone. Stories can help build trust in us (Voces del East Bay) because people can see that others also know what it is to move from another country to follow a dream,” Voces del East Bay member Michelle Armienta said.

Even though the group is small, consisting of five to six core members with professor Palacios as their adviser, they have a busy schedule of events planned into the next year.

Voces del East Bay members will be attending the California Dream Network annual retreat, held this weekend at Cal State-Sacramento.

The retreats and conferences are a valuable way to gather information and connecting regional and national networks to build the movement for immigration reform, Ledesma said.

“At the retreat we can get to know more people. We also want to learn because we are just getting started,” Gonzalez said.

To increase their visibility on campus, Voces del East Bay will be holding a “Posada” on Dec. 6, in Fireside Hall from 5:30-7 p.m.

Posadas are a Christmas tradition in Mexico in which carolers go from house to house re-enacting the biblical story of Mary and Joseph.

“Ours will be a secular celebration,” Palacios said.

The event will include performances, an open mic and traditional foods.

Members of Voces del East Bay are also planning presentations at the National Association of Chicano/Chicana Studies Conference in April of 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

They will talk about their work around using social media tools, organizing for the Contra Costa Community College District sanctuary status and other local successes that have been the result of student and community efforts.

Michelle Armienta is a political science major at CCC. She was born in San Francisco and is a U.S. citizen, but she grew up in Mexico with her parents.

Even though she does not face the difficulties that undocumented students face, Armienta understands the difficulty of adjusting to a new country.

“It was still difficult for me to apply for health insurance and to apply for a job because everything is different. I can imagine how hard it is when you don’t have papers and you don’t speak English,” Armienta said. “It was hard for me to get involved in all of this kind of stuff at first because I did not know a lot of people. Now, I know that I can actually help others because I have this group and we all agree on what to do.”

Even with such a full schedule of local, regional and national events, progress can still seem slow. Voces del East Bay members take on the additional tasks of information gathering, writing, posting and promoting along with the every day responsibilities of being a student.

“It’s a process of priorities,” Ledesma said. “Our education and family comes first. Once you are OK helping yourself and family, then you can go on to helping your community. It takes consistency and careful scheduling.”

Ledesma is a La Raza studies major at CCC who came to the U.S. when he was 8  months old. The DACA program allowed him to participate in a medical internship at Kaiser Hospital in Richmond while he was in high school.

“The work authorization that DACA offered has been the biggest help,” Ledesma said.

Voces del East Bay is open to new members from all types of backgrounds.

The group is asking for submissions of poems, stories and music. Supporters of immigrant rights and anybody who has been affected by immigration policy are welcome to participate.

“The relationship between undocumented and those that are documented or are citizens is important because we are all living in this community. It is important for us all to get along and understand each other,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzales is an undocumented student who came to the U.S. when she was 12 with her mother. Her parents had recently divorced and her mother wanted to be closer to her family who already lived in the U.S. Gonzalez is also a La Raza studies and Spanish major at CCC.

“I am planning to be a teacher here in Richmond and San Pablo. My teachers helped me a lot to adjust to life in the U.S., so this is a way for me to give back to the community,” Gonzalez said.

“Anyone interested in working on immigration rights, writing or media skills we meet in GE-310 on Wednesdays,” Ledesma said. “First, we train ourselves to be active socially. Then we cultivate our writing skills, train ourselves to be opinion writers and get in touch with our community — documented and undocumented.”

The fears for undocumented students are very real.

“You always have to be afraid of deportation. Every rule has to be followed with little to no mistakes. You have to be very aware and resourceful. DACA has been very helpful. Hopefully there will be pushback against the termination of the program,” Ledesma said.