Social media becomes sanctuary
Immigration-rights activists use online platforms to reach out, help residents
Six years ago, Ivan Ceja and his cousins began a Facebook group — an intimate space where he could help family members decipher immigration paperwork.
Friends joined in, and Ceja’s network ballooned. He soon drew 7,000 Facebook followers seeking his help.
Overwhelmed by demand, he formed a nonprofit dubbed UndocuMedia, dedicated to helping people who want to learn more about the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program grants work authorization and deportation relief to certain immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“I didn’t plan on creating UndocuMedia, but after being one of the first in the nation to be protected by DACA, I saw a need,” said Ceja, who said he received DACA protection shortly after the program launched in 2012. “People would look at my permit like a holy object and I wanted to tell people that they could get it too.”
Today, UndocuMedia boasts more than 35,000 Facebook followers and contributors like Univision’s Jorge Ramos. Ramos was recently featured in an UndocuMedia video shot by Ceja. Fifteen minutes after Ceja posted the 30-second message, it reached about 5,000 views.
Ceja gets help from another “dreamer,” a term used by immigration activists to refer to DACA recipients. Justino Mora, a fellow activist who received DACA protection in 2012, shares the same passion for immigrant rights as Ceja.
“It’s extremely rewarding to know that we’re making an impact,” said Mora, who said he was also among the first to get DACA protection. “We’re empowering other people to have the tools to get ahead in life.”
Together, they advocated for the 2011 California Dream Act, a package of California laws that allow certain children who were brought into the United States illegally to apply for student financial aid benefits.
“I liked his work ethic, and (he) was very responsible,” Ceja said. “So I invited him on board.”
With a new organizer, Ceja laid the groundwork of his vision. Together, they built resources to help those without documentation. They created software to translate birth certificates digitally, and they developed a “DACA calculator” to tell users when they need to reapply.
“We try to come up with innovative ways to help the community,” Ceja said.
Groups like UndocuMedia can be found nationwide. They all share one goal: to create a venue for millions of immigrants, undocumented youth or people in deportation proceedings. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.3 million immigrants without authorization in the U.S. in 2014.
Some organizations, such as Houston-based Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha, focus on helping undocumented youth pursuing college. FIEL’s founder, Cesar Espinosa, created it after he was turned away when he asked for help applying to a university.
“It was hard for us to obtain information,” Espinosa said. “When we would go to a college, we would be turned away or treated as if were were diseased. I wanted to help others not feel this way.”
Espinosa has not only helped students continue with their education but has helped fill out more than 6,000 DACA applications.
“It warms my heart whenever I see one of our students walk the stage and graduate,” Espinosa said. “I like to see people achieve their dreams and become something better than themselves.”
Other groups help undocumented immigrants embrace their status and encourage others to come out of the shadows. The Immigrant Justice League in Chicago touts itself as “the nation’s leader in encouraging undocumented immigrants share their story publicly,” according to its website.
Experts say demand for immigrant support groups is high, and it’s growing, especially in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand the DACA program and shield millions more under a new program.
Amid a contentious presidential race, some are even bracing for the possible demise of the DACA program, which Obama established through an executive order four years ago.
“I think there’s a lot of fear,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “These organizations don’t just fulfill the functions on telling you how to apply, but lower the level of anxiety.”