DREAM summer national program provides opportunities for undocumented youth

Intersectionality, privilege, human trafficking, social justice, healthcare, incarceration, prison complex, interracial identity — these are all terms used regularly in the Dream Summer National Program, which has wrapped up nearly three months of immigrant rights work across the country.

The Dream Summer program, through the Dream Resource Center (DRC) at the University of California Los Angeles, concluded its 5th annual fellowship program on Thursday, August 20, with a formal ceremony and reception, held at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles.

“When I first came to terms with my being undocumented, it was around the time the Federal Dream Act did not pass in Congress. There was a lot of hopelessness, sense of ‘what happens next?’ for us,” Seth Ronquillo, communications coordinator with the DRC, told the Asian Journal.

Through the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, the DRC aims to promote the education and leadership of immigrant youth nationwide. Since its founding, the center has emerged as a nationally-known resource for innovative research, education, and policy on immigration issues.

In 2011, members of the DRC—many of whom are undocumented or affiliated (including friends and family members)—developed a summer leadership program to better serve the growing immigrant community.

“Dream Summer came about as a response to provide different, better opportunities for undocumented youth to develop as leaders and as young professionals. We often find ourselves with [a] lack of access to higher education and employment opportunities, because of our immigration status. Being pushed out of education systems not because we are incapable, but because of a lack of resources and policy that would allow undocumented immigrants to go ahead and take these opportunities,” said Ronquillo, who interned for Dream Summer in 2011 and 2012.

Over 400 diverse, undocumented youth nationwide have applied for the prestigious program, and 83 applicants from students to full-time workers were accepted, after filling out a personal statement, background check, and questionnaire expressing their general interest on immigrant issues.

“What we really look for with these accepted interns is the overall desire to grow as social justice leaders, and the desire to work with the immigrant rights community and develop resources and work for justice, especially in educational, health, and labor purposes,” Ronquillo shared. “We want to provide them with many more opportunities.

The UCLA Labor Center also sponsors an opening weeklong retreat for participants of the program, where interns from around the country gathered in Los Angeles to talk about social justice, gender/sexuality, racial identity, and current issues involving immigrant rights—issues that directly involve and affect them.

“We’ve forgotten the history and importance of interracial social justice activism,” says Dr. Donna Nicol, a political science professor at UCLA, during a presentation at the Dream Summer Opening Retreat in June. “I try to make sure that students understand not just gender and sexuality—but how all of these things interact with other parts of your identity, such as race, class, etcetera. We need to be mindful that all of these systems interact.”

“You have to be aware,” Nicol continued. “You can’t just sit here and act like you don’t know what’s going on around you.”

After the opening retreat, Dream Summer participants are placed locally in respective social justice organizations, labor unions, and healthcare facilities, based on their application and interests. They intern for 10 weeks, helping with the logistics of the organization, planning events that spread awareness to the immigrant community, and other general tasks to gain valuable learning experience on a certain issue.

Some participating local organizations include Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Filipino Migrant Center, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and New York DRUM – South Asian Organizing Center.

“We really hope that through this program, the interns grow as leaders within their own community,” said Ronquillo. “A lot of our interns talk about finding a sense of purpose, growing in their interests within social justice, and understanding intersectionality and solidarity. We hope that by the end, that you are able to expand to see the world, to work with other undocumented immigrants and social justice movements beyond immigrant rights, and to build leaders who are social justice conscious.”

Advocating for social justice, immigrant rights

Two Filipina sisters, Madeleine and Madison Villanueva, opened up to the Asian Journal about growing up in an openly undocumented family, and shared of their recent life-changing experiences with Dream Summer.

22-year-old Madeleine didn’t realize she was undocumented until she began applying for her driver’s license and college.

“It didn’t hit me until later, when life just kind of hits you and you’re looking for basic opportunities,” Madeleine shared. “I found out certain things I just didn’t qualify for—like getting a driver’s license when I turned 16; that wasn’t possible for me.”

Later in 2012, Madeleine was approved under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing her to move from Pierce College to pursuing her goals of going to university. Last year, she enrolled at UC Berkeley, where she is now studying political economy.

“I always had this doubt about the future, and I thought all of my dreams for the future would fall through, but then I became involved,” she said. “I stopped feeling bad about being undocumented, and instead started doing something about it.”

Pursuing their interests and passion for the community, both Madeleine and her younger sister Madison became involved with ASPIRE-LA, an Asian-American immigrant rights and advocacy group based in LA.

“Meeting amazing people through Dream Summer and ASPIRE-LA, people with different backgrounds who truly understand the undocumented experience; it makes you think of your own story and want to change the overall narrative,” said Madison, who interned at the Thai Hall Information Services (2013) and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (2014).

“It was like being thrown into the deep end,” she laughed, recalling her internship experience with Dream Summer. “But through it all, I gained so much valuable insight, like how to work with others and being really involved with the movement. It’s not scary at all.”

“When I went into the program, it made me realize the importance of advocating for the community. It’s like, you just have to go for it.”

After participating in Dream Summer, many interns have gone on to pursue their passion of speaking out for immigrant rights. For instance, Madison, 20, is now a double sociology and Asian American studies major at UC Santa Barbara, where she hopes to chase personal goals of helping others.

The Villanueva sisters, along with their outspoken mom “Tita Maddy,” have worked for years in political advocacy, including support of the recently passed AB 60 (which grants all eligible immigrants driver’s licenses in California regardless of status).

“I feel like there is a lot of stigma, especially in our own Filipino community, that we don’t seek out the help from others that we should. There aren’t many [Asian Americans] that apply for DACA, many who are still living in fear,” added Madeleine. “Overall, the Asian experience of being undocumented is different; you don’t think ‘undocumented’ when you see an Asian American person. You think ‘model minority’.”

“But becoming a DACA recipient has opened so many doors for me and my sister, such as the Dream Summer internship program,” she recalled.

This summer, Madeleine interned at the California Labor Federation in their workforce and economic development department, conducting research on LA County Workforce Development Boards and learning about the connections between labor and immigrant rights.

“I was able to participate in an API leadership training called Summer Activist Training and the APALA Convention,” she shared. “These spaces showed some of the collaborations between labor and immigrant rights groups, their history together and apart, and some of their organizing techniques…my supervisor also challenged me to think things through certain lenses, especially when working with the immigrant/labor community. In the end, I became more confident in sharing my own experiences, and learned how to tell my story for different audiences. I would highly recommend this program to anyone interested, and I encourage people to apply for programs that they are not too familiar with.”

The internship program has helped Madeleine step out of her comfort zone, she noted.

“[This program] has helped me ground a lot of my own experiences and see where I belong in this larger picture. I also saw that though there has been progress in the last couple of years, there is still a lot of moving forward that needs to be done,” she said.

“Going into Dream Summer, I felt like it was really an amazing opportunity for me to see that there are other things than just feeling hopeless as an undocumented immigrant,” Ronquillo, who also helps the DRC with outreach, added. “There is a lot of power that we have as a people—especially to those individuals who are working and advocating for immigrant rights.”

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