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  • 29 Sep 2015

United We Dream: Inspiration for Undocumented Youth

Journalist Louise Tickle, who has just reported on the desperate state of undocumented children in the UK, shares the brave personal stories of two young US campaigners.

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Renata Teodoro and Lucas Codognolla led an inspiring Public Narrative Workshop at PHF. Image: Len Grant

“When people hear unjust stories they tend to want to do something,” says Renata Teodoro, 27. An undocumented Brazilian migrant who has lived in the US since she was six, Renata is today running a training session at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation HQ in London for professionals determined to change the desperate outlook for undocumented migrant children living in the UK. Unusually perhaps for a training course, the participants are hanging on her every word.

She and fellow campaigner Lucas Codognolla, 24, flew in last night, and if they’re jetlagged it doesn’t show. Despite their youth, both are formidable campaigners for change in the way US society views young illegal migrants. In person they are energetic, warm, engaging and thoughtful: in action, their relentless, disruptive and creative campaigning through United We Dream, the 100,000 strong immigrant youth-led network, has secured substantial new rights for both themselves and others like them to live and work in the US without the constant risk of being summarily told they must leave.

Critical to their success – and the reason there is such rapt attention from everyone in the room today – is the fact that Renata and Lucas have learned to become compelling and effective storytellers. Some of the stories they tell don’t have happy endings: they describe migrant families broken up by the state, parents and siblings deported, and how terrifying knocks on the door by police can be the first time a young person discovers they have no legal right to live in the place they call home.

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Renata Teodoro and Lucas Codognolla led an inspiring Public Narrative Workshop at PHF. Image: Len Grant

There is a very specific point to this sharing of painful experiences. “By telling our stories, we’ve been able to build a community, take action as a community, and change national policy,” grins Lucas. Learning to tell stories purposefully is all about what the pair call developing one’s own “public narrative”, and is the focus of this training today. Individuals can learn to deploy their stories with strategic intent, says Renata; the aim is “to inspire your audience to move from fear to hope, to go from stagnation to motivation, to turn their values system into actions.”

Lucas’s story

“I had a very poor childhood growing up in Brazil. My parents didn’t finish high school. I was the kid who wanted books at Christmas, not toys. My parents were a granted tourist visa to visit the US when I was nine years old. At a certain point the visa expired: from then on, we were undocumented. I had no idea. “Up until I was 16 I went to high school. I enjoyed it very much, had good friends, was enjoying my life. Then, my best friend’s mum was stopped by police because of a broken tail light on her car. She was deported, and he was deported too. This was the moment I was faced with my lack of status, and it was scary.

“Scholarships I’d won to go to college were revoked because I was undocumented. I realised I had a choice: do I go back to Brazil, or do I choose to stay and fight for myself and my family? I chose to stay, and then I found this amazing movement, this undocumented youth movement. The first time I shared my story with other kids like me, I broke down, I was a mess – but at the same time, I also felt so empowered by that community around me, supporting me. And in the US we have over time been able to grow and nurture this community, this network, that sustains us as we fight for our rights.”

Lucas recently graduated with a BA in Political Science from the University of Connecticut. A dedicated campaigner for the rights of undocumented youth, he is the lead co-ordinator of Connecticut’s state-wide network, Students for a Dream, part of the national movement United We Dream, now active across 26 states.

In the USA, there are estimated to be over 11 million undocumented migrants living in the shadows. Figures given by Renata and Lucas indicate that there are 400,000 deportations every year, with two million people deported since President Obama came into office. Here, Oxford University research suggests that that 120,000 to 140,000 children and young people are living in Britain without the legal right to reside. Of these, around 60,000-80,000 were born here, have been educated here and speak English. Just as for Renata and Lucas in the US, others will have travelled here with family when they were very young and had no idea what was happening.

Without papers, until they are 18 these children have some rights to healthcare and education but their families’ fear of the authorities locating and deporting the adult members means they often do not make full use of the services their children are entitled to. Research suggests that many grow up in severe poverty.

In the past few years, young migrants without official status in the US have founded their own campaigning communities, deliberately opted to take the risk of allowing their names and images to be used in the media and have marched, agitated and demonstrated openly at both Democratic and Republican party events. They have challenged both Republicans and Democrats In the UK, now that there is a stated wish by the government to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants, the momentum to challenge the status quo is beginning to grow.

“Young people in this country don’t necessarily self-identify as undocumented, and certainly don’t admit it to their friends,” observes Sarah Cutler who works on the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Supported Options programme, which aims to provide support and advice to young people and children in the UK without regular immigration status. There is too, she notes, far greater ethnic diversity in the immigrant population in the UK than there is in the US. This may mean it is harder for young people without papers in the UK to gather, organise and campaign in quite the same way as their counterparts have done across the Atlantic.

But success is a heady motivator, as demonstrated by the huge smiles flashed by Renata and Lucas as they recall some campaign highlights.

“A lot of undocumented youth were getting picked up even though they werenʼt doing anything wrong, and getting deported,” describes Lucas, of the situation he and others were facing less than five years ago.

“We started protesting this, doing direct action – for instance, we physically stopped a bus from an immigration centre in Arizona going to Mexico, and managed to get five people who were wrongfully being deported from that bus – and challenging Obama himself at election fundraisers which I think shocked some people. We were making a lot of noise, and have built up good relationships with local press, Buzzfeed and the New York Times. Various legal think tanks then got into contact, and we realised that the President had the power to stop the deportations.”

Renata’s story

“Living in Brazil, my parents were poor. Both of them stopped school at 14 and started work, my father in coal mines and also as a fisherman. Things were so bad that he decided when I was very young that he had to leave to find work in the US: for years he sent money home. When I was six, I was told we were going to the US to see him: I was also told I would meet Mickey Mouse, which sounded great to me. When I saw my dad at the airport it was the first time in years. We never went back.

“As I got older, things started cropping up that made me uneasy. I sensed things for me werenʼt exactly as they were for everyone else. While I was at high school I had a hard time getting a job; I couldnʼt get a driving licence either. And as time went on, I got more aware, and scared when I was called into the office at school that Iʼd be told that my parents had been detained. I got a scholarship for college, but couldnʼt use it, because I had no status. Iʼd saved and saved, and thought, “well, I could afford to do a year. And maybe somebody out there will change this undocumented thing for me.”

“At the end of my second semester at college, immigration came to our house. My mother and I were at work, but my brother was handcuffed and taken away. We had no idea where. That was the moment I became really angry. And I felt, if I leave here now, someone else is going to win. My family had to go back to Brazil. I should have gone too – I had no more rights than they did. But I chose to stay. I found a group of students who were undocumented and active, and I found I wanted to be a part of it.

“Was there a risk? Sure. When I started, I was terrified. I was one of the first undocumented people to come out and use my name and show my face. People were doing interviews literally in the shadows, but I was like, ʻno, this is my name, this is my face, this is where I go to school.ʼ I accepted the risk, as did other young people in the same situation as me. We realised that if we didnʼt, nobody was going to share our story for us. If you share your story, youʼre putting a face to the issue, and to the numbers. The more established migrant rights organisations, they thought we were crazy, but it was a risk we had take to change anything.”

After returning to the US from her tour of organisations across the UK that support undocumented youth in this country, Renata will continue to campaign for education equity in her home state of Massachusetts.

As a result of the sustained campaigning, in 2012 President Obama introduced a new policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA: this protected 1.2 million young people with irregular status from deportation, and gives them a renewable two-year work permit.

“When we realised we had this power, we pushed for more,” says Lucas. Galvanised by their policy win, groups of undocumented young people that had formed in states across the UK joined forces and continued to campaign: they have since gained protection from deportation for some parents of citizens and lawful residents.

“There was a lot of backlash,” says Renata. “The Republicans kept fighting it.”

“But through our work,” says Lucas, “weʼve been able to change the narrative around undocumented migrants in the United States.”

Here, the thrill of last monthʼs Supreme Court win for an undocumented school leaver who has just been granted the right to student finance to fund her university studies could be an important turning point – the moment when other young people realise there is something to gain by a collective challenge to the governmentʼs stated policy objective of making the UK a hostile environment for undocumented migrants, no matter that they were children when they came to this country, and no matter the fact that they have, though no fault of their own, grown up knowing no other.

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