Black-and-white photo depicting a DACA rally in Lafayette Square with masked protestors holding signs that read "Citizenship for ALL."

Dream Away: Washington Dream ACT Coalition Is Led by and for Undocumented Youth

by Kamna Shastri

Ray Corona knew hardly anything about politics and even less about the Washington State Legislature. Yet, as a high school student in 2009, he boldly stood at the head of a room full of legislators in Olympia and testified for a bill that would alter the lives of undocumented young adults forever. He was one of the first students to speaks candidly about his status as an undocumented person. Little did he know that the other students waiting in line to speak were not going to be doing that.

“In many ways that was the first time I sort of came out very publicly about my status, on the record for the [Washington] State Dream Act. That is sort of what prompted my activism with [the] immigrant community, specifically with the undocumented community,” said Corona.

Many of the other young students who had come to testify at this public hearing were part of other organizations and had been coached and mobilized to testify before the Legislature. Corona, however, had heard about the proposed bill from his school counselor who urged him to get involved.

From there, Corona began to organize and became friends with Monserrat Padilla (now at Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network). The two created what was at the time the Washington Dream Act Coalition (WADAC), a coalition that was led by and for young undocumented students.

“We wanted to make sure undocumented youth were at the center and were the ones coming up with these solutions because as the campaign evolved for the State Dream Act, there were many times that allies were willing to compromise just to get a bill passed,” said Corona.

The goal was to create a statewide coalition that could advocate without compromise for undocumented youth. Padilla, Corona, and others began connecting over Facebook and organizing their shared actions through the social media platform. Through a variety of organizing tactics, they were able to work with lawmakers and present the case for DACA over the next five years. The Washington State Dream Act was finally passed in the spring of 2014.

Corona never benefited from DACA himself. He says that as an undocumented youth, one shoulders a heavy burden and the pressure to accomplish. Many undocumented youth are robbed of the fun and frolic that characterizes adolescence and college. Corona, for example, studied full-time at UW Bothell while working full-time as a server and campaigning for the Washington State Dream Act.

“That was definitely a big burden for me and my development as a young adult. I had a high amount of responsibility,” he said.

But with the State Dream Act, which passed thanks to the activism of Corona, Padilla, and others, now students now are able to pursue more traditional and enriching college experiences. One of Corona’s friends had the option to study abroad and to seek scholarships that would cover tuition and allow undocumented students to be able to better enjoy a more immersive college experience.

During the 2014 state legislative session, the State Dream Act finally passed and became state law. Undocumented students who applied for DACA would be able to work and study in the U.S. and could renew their DACA status every two years. Soon after, WADAC rebranded to be the Washington Dream Coalition (WADC).

That same year, Corona decided it was time to step away from the student organizing movement. He had finished his degree and had spent years tirelessly organizing while pursuing his own studies. It was time to move on and explore other opportunities, including some time in the corporate insurance world. But Corona didn’t step away without some kind of legacy.

Corona started a yearly tradition called “undocu-graduation.” With the help of a Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) grant from the Seattle Foundation, WADAC was able to honor Dreamers who had graduated from college.

The first graduation took place after the State Dream Act passed. The bill had been a bi-partisan piece of legislation, and WADC invited both Democratic and Republican representatives to the graduation ceremony. The goal of the event, however, was not to tout Dreamers as the model immigrant, flaunting achievement and proving merit.

“For me personally and for everyone, it was about bringing visibility to the achievements of undocumented youth,” said Corona. As WADC has had to organize and mobilize through the tumultuous Trump years, they’ve also made a clear case that the State Dream Act and justice for undocumented youth should not be gained through the glamorization of the model immigrant narrative.

The fight for DACA had begun in the early 2000s and according to Corona, the immigrant youth movement had, in its early years, banked on the idea of a “model” Dreamer: “a person who speaks perfect English, who goes to college, who is really a go-getter and has almost this evolving success story,” Corona said.

This stereotype — that immigrants need to fit a certain set of criteria in order to be considered worthy of being here — is counter to the values of WADC’s members. As Corona says, not all immigrants have the opportunity to learn English and to complete a degree with stellar grades.

This includes considering the intersections among overlapping communities. There are shared struggles between immigrant communities and Black and Brown communities in how they are portrayed as criminals and targeted by law enforcement, for example.

“We wanted to make sure the policies we were crafting and the solutions we were coming up with were for all communities,” said Corona.

The Trump Years

After Corona stepped away from leadership, a new cohort of young students took the lead in steering the undocumented youth movement during the tumult of the Trump administration. Paul Quinonez was a student at Gonzaga University in Eastern Washington when he got involved. Contrary to the outspoken work he would do over the coming years, Quinonez’s family had sworn him to secrecy about his undocumented status.

But when Quinonez saw the kind of cross-state organizing that WADC was doing, he felt heartened to get involved. As someone who was already protected under DACA, Quinonez considered what his privilege required of him.

“Even if I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up, … I was one of the lucky few who gets to [go to] college; the worst that was going to happen was hateful comments, given the privilege that I had in the undocumented community,” said Quinonez.

In the following years, Trump’s tumultuous administration constantly threatened the stability of the federal DREAM Act and let the futures and families of millions of immigrants — documented or undocumented — hang in the balance of heated anti-immigration vitriol. Many students faced threats to their education, and the fear of deportation was heightened.

“Boy, it was mental warfare — you could wake up one day and wonder what Trump was going to say, and your parents would call you all freaked out,” said Quinonez.

While students who had already received DACA were safe, Trump’s constant threats to end DACA had a psychological toll on many youth. The fear in Washington State was palpable, and yet perspective came in the form of participating in immediate action across the United States. WADC members would travel to parts of the country for direct, immediate actions and rallies where local counties had contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency tasked with hunting down undocumented individuals and sending them to detention centers. These incidents were happening in Washington too, but it was nothing quite like what Quinonez remembers seeing elsewhere.

Seeing the severity of what was affecting other parts of the country where state legislatures had not passed DACA put the privileges afforded to undocumented youth in Washington into perspective.

Throughout the Trump years, WADC organized to make sure students and institutions were aware of DACA recipients’ rights and continued to advocate to block challenges to the federal DREAM Act from the political hostility churning through the nation. When Trump threatened to end the program, WADC sprung to action, gathering stories and presenting to Gov. Inslee and Washington State legislators just how much there was at stake. Trump, thankfully, never succeeded in ending DACA.

Then COVID-19 hit, and WADC pivoted to advocating for pandemic aid for undocumented immigrants, who were not factored into aid packages until the 2021 legislative session. In partnership with organizations, such as the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WISN), WADC was able to help get $465 million of assistance to undocumented people. During the 2021 Washington legislative session, they were able to add another $65 million to that number.

These wins mobilized and energized the community, Quinonez said, an energy that was badly needed after four exhausting years characterized by a rollercoaster of uncertainty with little progress.

“Hope can only be kept alive for so long,” he said.

Passing the Baton

For the rest of the year, WADC’s goals are to keep challenging any threats to DACA, and to extend aid and support for undocumented families affected by COVID-19. Other than that, Quinonez is eager to pass the baton of leadership to fresh hands.

From the beginning, WADC was meant to be led by high school- and college-aged undocumented youth, advocating for the needs and policy changes that each cohort deemed relevant through their lived experiences. But the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the process of transitioning to new leadership. Now that Quinonez and Corona are both green card holders, their experiences are beginning to diverge from those of other undocumented youth. Gracefully, they know it’s time for fresh leadership to determine new priorities.

“We’ve always wanted to focus on the experience of young undocumented people. We don’t know the experience of our parents. We don’t pretend to organize adults or refugees … all those are very different experiences,” says Quinonez.

And being in your mid-to-late 20s as a documented adult is also a very different experience. One of the hardest things about being undocumented, Quinonez said, is not being able to visualize and plan your future. DACA, as much as it can be a lifeline, only allows one to think about life in two-year intervals. Given that timeline, it’s nearly impossible to imagine things like getting married, buying a house, finding a stable job, and contemplating big life decisions.

“The older in life you are when you get your papers, the more your development has been reshaped and taken out of your hands,” said Quinonez.

Now that a whole new life has opened up for him, Quinonez is trying to reflect and intentionally heal from the ways the experience of being undocumented has harmed him. He can choose to apply for jobs and knows he can choose to stay in this country for as long as he wants. Things like buying a house, marriage — they all feel within grasp now.

Yet, his parents are still undocumented so Quinonez is still adjacent to the experience.

“I am trying to find what my place is now to make sure to uplift [the cause],” said Quinones. “I’ve been outspoken for so many years now that people turn to me organically to ask me for my opinion.” But this new chapter requires Quinonez to step back and aid the movement from a different place.

“[I’m] learning to be an ally,” he said.

This is the fourth in a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Victoria Pickering (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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