POLITICS
02/04/2013 06:38 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

Dreamers Train For Immigration Reform Fight

WASHINGTON -- Bernard Pastor, an undocumented 20-year-old sophomore at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, was detained by immigration agents in 2010. Now he hopes sharing his story can help move the immigration debate forward, and he traveled to Washington on Sunday for a week-long intensive workshop on advocacy.

The plan: to teach Dreamers -- young undocumented immigrants who would benefit from the Dream Act -- how to effectively tell their own stories and convince others to support reform.

Pastor has some experience with that. He talks to classes sometimes about social justice, and is speaking later this year at a TED conference. His pitch is that immigration opponents need to get to know some of the people affected by their policies.

"Before I start speaking I say, I can acknowledge the fact that you, at the end of this speech, will probably still won't support me, and I understand that," he said. "But if you sit down and have a conversation with me, get to know me, I guarantee I can change your mind."

Nearly 200 young people, most of them undocumented, are in town for the training, organized by advocacy groups United We Dream and the PICO National Network. They focused Monday on learning to tell their stories, and the stories of their communities, in a way that would cause people to either join the push for immigration reform or reconsider trying to block it.

The fight for immigration reform is moving quickly, but advocates say it will require a sustained push. President Barack Obama laid out his plans last week for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, increased border security and fixes to the legal immigration system. A bipartisan Senate group, dubbed the "gang of eight," also released a framework for reform last week, along largely the same grounds except theirs would tie green cards to border security.

The group of Dreamers and allies in the basement ballroom of a temple downtown are aiming for a pathway to citizenship for themselves and their families who are in the country without status. During their week of trainings, they will visit about 100 congressional offices to urge them to vote in support of comprehensive immigration reform and to share their stories. But mostly they are hoping to learn how to be better advocates here, and then take those lessons home to be better activists in their own communities.

Jerssay Arredondo, a 21-year-old undocumented immigrant who lives in Phoenix, said it used to be difficult for him to discuss his undocumented status. He moved to the United States from Mexico when he was three years old, and recently applied to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He said he was embarrassed about being undocumented until 2010, when Arizona's restrictive S.B. 1070 immigration law pulled him into the advocacy movement. Now, he works with the Arizona Dream Coalition to push for reform.

He said it's most important to be able to speak to voters who oppose reform, not politicians.

"We have so many people on this side, but on the other side these people have so much hate that at times it seems like a waste of time to try to convince them to change their mind because they don't understand," he said. "But in reality, it's those people that have that hate and have that animosity toward us ... those are the ones that are hard to convince, and at the end of the day, that's what's going to matter."

The afternoon session on sharing a campaign narrative began with a talk from Carlos Saavedra, a co-founder of United We Dream. He asked the participants to stretch -- by then, they had been at the training for five hours -- and then talked to them about the focus of their effort.

"Is this immigration struggle about borders? No. Is this about visas? No. Is this about Marco Rubio? No. Is this about Barack Obama? No," he said. "This is about whether America is still the land of immigrants."

Saavedra said the idea is for attendees to figure out the values of their own community and those of the community they want to reach, and then to see where they might align. If they were trying to convince African Americans to join the movement, they might discuss family, he said. If they want to reach out to labor, they could talk about workers' rights.

The Dreamers split into groups of about 10 to come up with ways to tell their own stories. They wrote down some of the things they wanted to say, based on set guidelines: using "we" or "us," crafting a narrative, talking about key moments and convincing others to get involved. Then they went around in a circle, getting three minutes to talk -- as other attendees snapped in approval -- and three minutes to listen to criticism.

Discussions of the undocumented immigrant experience often tend toward the sad: families being ripped apart by deportation, or people being unable to visit family in their native countries because they wouldn't have the authorization to return to the U.S.

When the Dreamers shared their stories, many talked about deportation or detention. Some had been picked up by the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while others had seen their family members detained. They talked about Erika Andiola, an advocacy leader and undocumented immigrant whose mother and brother were held by ICE overnight last month, then released after an outcry from the activist community.

But Saavedra encouraged them to keep a positive tone to their speeches. "Pain alone will not get us to the finish line," he told the group. "Pain will wake you up. Hope will keep you alive."

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