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Elev8 Students to Congressman: Immigration Reform Now

Resource type: News

LISC/Chicago | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Maureen Kelleher.  For many Chicago middle school students, immigration reform isn’t an academic abstraction. Some of them are undocumented, or have friends and classmates who are, and they’re apprehensive about what life beyond the 8th grade holds for them.

This was abundantly clear earlier this month, when a team of African-American and Latino students representing the five Elev8 Chicago schools led a forum on immigration reform featuring U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-4).

                                                                                    Photo by Eric Young Smith

The predominant themes were a call to end deportations, especially when they divide families, and the importance of citizens speaking out on behalf of undocumented immigrants silenced by their status. 

“If you don’t have something to speak up about, you can always speak on someone else’s behalf,” noted Darren Sanders, a Southern Illinois University student from the Quad Communities who works with Elev8 at Reavis Elementary.

                                                                         Photo by Eric Young Smith

Sanders did just that during the forum at Orozco Academy in Pilsen, an Elev8 school in Gutierrez’s district. He read a moving account of an undocumented student’s personal experience crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States. Now in Chicago, the student has younger siblings who are U.S. citizens and fears deportations could tear the family apart.

During the call to action, youth leaders encouraged the audience of nearly 400 students, parents, educators and others to stand up for immigration reform that would unite families and offer a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They also questioned Gutierrez on topics ranging from the impact of immigrants on economic recovery to the growing likelihood of waging a civil-rights style campaign to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The congressman took a few moments to react to the recent news that Republican Congressional leaders have suggested changing the 14th Amendment to remove the provision that grants citizenship to all those born in the United States.

                                                                                                               Photo by Eric Young Smith

“They want us to put an immigration officer in every maternity ward in this country,” he said. “These are the same people who will tell you, ‘I’m pro-life. Every child is sacred.’ Now they’re saying, “Deport the child. Get rid of the child.’ As sad an experience as this is…it tells us to double down on our position, to get comprehensive immigration reform.”

Gutierrez also praised the students’ depth of knowledge of the issues. “It’s great to see young people examine their reality,” he said, adding that it was especially exciting to see such young students working together across racial lines to understand the issues. “I didn’t get to meet people who were non-Latino until I went to college. It’s truly a transformative experience.”

Elev8, a national program designed to bring together schools, families and the community in underserved neighborhoods to ensure that students succeed in school and in life, is being applied at five Chicago middle schools. It emphasizes extended learning opportunities beyond the classroom, provides high-quality, school-based health care, encourages parents to be involve in their children’s education, and offers family supports to promote economic stability and continuing education.


                                                                                                    Photo by Eric Young Smith

The immigration conference had its roots in a field trip to Washington, DC that parents of Chicago Elev8 students made earlier this year under the auspices of LISC/Chicago, which administers Elev8 Chicago; the Federation for Community Schools, which teaches students advocacy skills; and the community-based organizations that support the program in Chicago. While there they met with Gutierrez, discussed immigration issues, and agreed a forum in Chicago would be an ideal way to further the conversation.

Back in Chicago, students studied immigration issues, political advocacy techniques and community organizing principals, thus laying the groundwork for the forum.

Youth leaders noted the power of united advocacy. “It’s really important to help each other out,” said Cris Mar Mendoza of Ames Elementary.

“It involves everyone, not just Latinos,” noted Shanequa Washington, a Reavis Elementary graduate and current high school senior whose younger sister was among the first Elev8 students at Reavis.

At her current high school, she is aware some of her friends are undocumented and will struggle to afford college since they are ineligible for federal financial aid. “Close friends of yours might be involved.” 

                                                                                                           Photo by Eric Young Smith

Parents and community members at the forum said they were motivated to spread the word. “This is the first time I came to an event like this,” said Jamilliah Brown, a mother from Reavis Elementary with children in Elev8. Asked what she had learned, she said, “A whole lot to take back and share with the people in my community about immigration. The kids, that’s my biggest concern, because every child needs their mother or father.”

While many support programs for youth focus on supports and services, Elev8’s empowerment component sets it apart, noted Sandy Trujillo, consultant to The Atlantic Philanthropies, which funds Elev8 across four sites nationally. “Elev8 is about more than services—it is transforming into a vibrant empowerment and community initiative.”

Elev8 is an Atlantic grantee.

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