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The Legalization for All Network’s border delegation learns from students

By staff

Students holding up the poster "De Centroamérica a Westlake Con Amor" by Dichos

Los Angeles, CA – On April 5, the final day of the Legalization for All Network’s border delegation, activists spent the morning listening to testimonies from seven immigrant students from the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. The students – all Guatemalan youth who’ve lived in the United States for less than a year – explained the conditions in Central America that pushed them to leave home, their experiences while detained by ICE, and the struggles of having to work to support their families.

The encuentro was hosted by SALEF, the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund, an organization that provides resources to Central American and other Latinos in Los Angeles. Jasmin Tobar, SALEF’s educational and mentorship program director, explained how her organization was founded by Carlos Vaquerano, a Salvadoran refugee whose family members were killed by death squads during his country’s civil war. Both SALEF and the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex are located within the Macarthur Park – Westlake neighborhood, historically the landing place for Central American immigrants in Los Angeles since the revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s.

The event started with the students modeling a bilingual teaching exercise so all participants could get to know each other. After this activity, the students displayed different examples of assignments in order to show the purpose of their Los Angeles history class. First, students presented a poster they created called “The Layers of Chavez Ravine,” which depicts how the city of Los Angeles pushed out a Chicano community to construct Dodgers Stadium.

Next, the students used “De Centroamérica a Westlake Con Amor,” a poster by the artist Dichos de un Bicho, to teach the delegates how Central Americans have brought their cultures to this area of Los Angeles. One student highlighted how the poster features a tribute to Manuel Jamines, an indigenous Guatemalan day laborer who was killed by LAPD in the community because, as a K’iche’ speaker, he did not understand the instructions he received from the police officer Frank Hernandez. Most of the students were also K’iche’ speakers and some described how they preserve their culture by organizing on campus with the school’s Mayan language club.

After this explanation of their coursework, the students spoke on why they left Guatemala, what they experienced on the journey to the United States, and their lives in Los Angeles. The students listed reasons for migrating from Guatemala were economic instability, a lack of opportunity, or hunger. One student migrated to the United States because it allowed her to reunite with her family.

The students then helped delegates better understand the realities they and many like them face when migrating to the United States. One student explained how he was detained by the migra when crossing the border. He told the delegates that while he was permitted to stay because he was underage, the other Guatemalans he traveled with were deported. While detained, the student was freezing. When he was sent to the refuge, he contracted COVID and was isolated once again.

The delegation members were also interested in hearing about the experiences of students as underage workers. One student is a dishwasher while another works at Universal Studios. They explained how students normally find out about jobs through family connections or word-of-mouth. The students described the struggle of working until the early morning before returning home to sleep for a few hours and then heading off to school. Underage immigrant workers must confront discrimination and exploitation from their bosses who can take advantage of their legal status.

Memo Perez, a member of MIRAC (the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee) said about the event, “Listening to these students who have journeyed so long, who continue to work and fight for dignity and preservation of their culture and language is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. As brave and resilient as they are, I wish that they could just be kids and not need to worry about the challenges imperialism and borders impose on their souls and bodies. I hope that myself and my comrades, many of us immigrants ourselves, can honor them in the work we do in Minnesota in defending the migrant children like them that live in our communities.”

Once the event ended, the delegates traveled to Grand Central Market in downtown before heading to LAX for their flights home.

The final day completed a delegation filled with insightful experiences on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In less than a week, activists toured the historic Chicano Park in Logan Heights San Diego, hiked to the border wall, visited Friendship Park, a shelter for LGBTQ+ immigrants, and a resource center for deported veterans, explored Boyle Heights and downtown Los Angeles, and hosted a panel connecting various organizations whose work involves immigrant justice in Los Angeles.

Jordan Peña, a Centro CSO immigration committee member, described the delegation overall as “a very moving experience.” He said, “The numerous days consisted of a very educational and insightful outlook on what migrants currently face. I really enjoyed hearing about the current immigration activism taking place throughout LA and the U.S. and how the system has created this struggle for migrants south of the border.”

The delegates committed to coordinating action moving forward, bringing their experiences to their work in their respective cities, and growing the Legalization 4 All Network.

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