Gina Perez is a member of Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance. She has been a leading member of the growing movement in Georgia, being among the first students in the state to ‘come out of the shadows’ in civil disobediance. In response to the education ban, GUYA has organized the Freedom University, where students are taking classes despite being barred from public universities.
In this piece for Organizing Upgrade Marisa Franco interviews Gina Perez.
MF: Tell me a little bit about your history and how you got involved in the movement.
GP: I always knew I was undocumented. But it really hit me when I was 16 and trying to get a job and a drivers license. I lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, in Marietta and it was really really hard to move around because my mom doesn’t drive. I was really excited and tried to get my license and actually went to the DMV…it didn’t work out.
I started driving without a license at 16. My senior year, I was trying to figure out what my options were for college. I went to my counselor, and I came out to him as undocumented. I trusted him because he was one of the only African American counselors in the school and felt he would understand and know how to help. He told me not to worry, that they would get me into college and handed me a HSF [Hispanic Scholarship Fund] application. But I was bummed because I had done my research, and I knew they didn’t accept undocumented students. I ended up lying, saying I was a citizen to be able to pay in state tuition. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go. That big cloud hung over me for three years.
My freshman year in college, DreamActivist was looking for a Georgia rep, and I applied. Apparently, no one else applied, so I got the position. This is back in 2008, and I started to get involved: to get on the conference calls and get in touch with organizations here in Georgia.
MF: If you were talking to a student who didn’t know about Obama’s recent decision, how would you describe the announcement?
GP: The announcement is big news. It’s a good thing. It’s a product of all the hard work from many, many undocumented youth. This announcement has taken a while to come. It’s not everything we want, but it’s something that I feel is a small victory. I don’t want to celebrate, and I haven’t just yet because we have to wait for 60 days to see if it’s actually implemented. I’m skeptical because there are lots of cases where petitions have been sent for DREAM Act youth who should get prosecutorial discretion, but they’re not happening. So I just recommend caution to whoever decides to apply. They need to be careful.
When I talk to my mom or family, they say I’m a pessimist, a Debbie Downer. But a year ago, we thought that memo [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/11/19/immigration-lawyers-say-enforcement-of-deportation-memo-falls-short.html] [whem the ICE Director told agents to only focus on deporting people convicted of crimes] was going be a good thing, so I’d rather be cautious than celebrate.
MF: What caused the Obama administration to make the decision? What forced them to make a move?
GP: I think it was the escalation over the past two years.
I strongly believe it had to do with the sit-ins organized by undocumented youth. Our messaging as a movement has changed a lot over last year. Initially, it was very, ‘Oh no, it’s the Republicans.’ But this president has deported more people than anyone else in history. It’s the same thing. Our message changed a lot. Our words followed our actions. We had to continue to put pressure. Obama could’ve done something in 2010, and he didn’t. We are holding him accountable for everything he promised our community. Specifically, I think the occupations of Obama for America (OFA) offices scared them. When we were going to do more action, they started closing down, due to “trainings.” They were scared to have undocumented youth sitting in because we were more organized and getting more visibility. It was a huge part of him making the decision.
Also, this year, when Rubio came out with his “proposal,” the National Immigrant Youth Alliance didn’t reject it because he is Republican. We said we’d listen. The last DREAM Act in 2010 was shitty, but we still supported it. But it wasn’t because it was Democrats who proposed it. We were not as close to the Democrats, and I think that freaked them out.
We know we can’t vote. But we want to show that we aren’t going to be loyal to either party. Both parties are criminalizing our community. At the end of the day, Obama is deporting more than 400,000 people a year. Here in Georgia, local authorities are splitting families up. They’re tossing the ball to each other, and no one is taking responsibility. We’ll listen to both parties, and we are willing to attack both parties. If they want to play games with our lives, we will play with their careers.
MF: What impact will the decision have on Latino voters?
GP: Regular Latinos who are not involved will say, “Yes! He did it!” My own family is still congratulating me for the DREAM Act. They think the DREAM Act passed. There is lots of misinformation.
MF: What’s next?
GP: Let’s say that it begins to be implemented. Young people are getting permits, and this works out great. But our parents are still undocumented. Our community is still undocumented. We still have S-Comm and checkpoints.
Ideally, our focus will shift towards helping people who aren’t DREAMers or the “cream of the crop.” We’ll still have cases where fathers are detained at a checkpoints on their way home from work. We still get those cases, no matter what. We’re starting to shift the stories a little more. Initially, it was the perfect DREAMer who shouldn’t be detained, and now it’s the mama or papa coming home from work. We’re getting more prepared to help out the rest of our communities. At the end of the day, we get permits for two years, and then what? We’re still undocumented. We’re still not residents. They can kick us out whenever they want. We need to continue to fight. S-Comm needs to be gone. It’s the most devastating thing right now.