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Organizing for Immigration in the Obama Era with Carlos Rojas Rodriguez

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Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Organizing for Immigration in the Obama Era with Carlos Rojas Rodriguez

Longtime immigrants’ rights organizer and former Bernie 2020 campaign staffer Carlos Rojas Rodriguez joins “Hegemonicon” to share the history of the youth-led progressive movement of the past decade-plus through the lens of immigrant students.

Over time, Carlos’ commitment to fighting for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as a college student during the Obama administration led him into broader organizing and activism for all Latinx immigrants. This landed him a staff position in the Bernie 2020 campaign, helping to canvas and organize Spanish-speaking voters in early primary states. In this episode Carlos shares why this felt like the right organizing path for him at the time and his concerns for the future.

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Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  00:07

people really felt the charisma of undocumented students trying to go to college. And we realized that it was something that we can leverage, you know, so we decided to run a campaign targeting the Obama administration. We heckled him, both of them anywhere he went. It was very common, and actually expected right that when he was speaking, he would be interrupted by undocumented youth. We also started to occupy his campaign offices, and it was really hard to justify it was really hard for Obama to make the case publicly and to campaign.

William Lawrence  00:49

Hello, and welcome to the hegemonic con, a podcast from convergence magazine. This is a show about social movements and politics, strategy and ideology, the immediate present and the rapidly onrushing future. I’m your host, William Lawrence. I spent my 20s as a member of grassroots social movements, most prominently as a co founder and national leader of sunrise movement, the youth organization that put the green New Deal on the political map. Now I’m in my early 30s, trying to make sense of what we’ve collectively learned in this last decade plus of social movements and heightening social crises. I talk with activists and researchers on the left, exploring the guiding theme of power, what it is, how its exercised, and how its distributed. What has living through these last several decades of increasing political and economic turmoil taught us about the relations of power here in the United States and worldwide. And in what directions do these lessons take us as we design strategies to build power from below to win basic rights, securities and justice. For this episode, I had a great time speaking with immigrant and labor organizer and my friend, Carlos Rojas, Rodriguez, I wanted to talk to Carlos for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that he’s an example of an organizer who moves fluidly between community labor and electoral organizing, depending on the needs of the moment, which in my experience is a hallmark of many of the best organizers. Carlos does a wonderful job describing his experience organizing with immigrant communities for the last 16 years. And he gives a play by play that really illuminates so much. You’ll hear that he has that organizers mentality of doing whatever will bring them into contact with and build power among immigrant workers and families. And you’ll hear about the consistency with which he’s applied that over the last 16 years, throughout victories, setbacks, and an evolving political landscape. He is laser focused on developing leadership and strengthening community to build power among immigrants. I loved hearing Carlos his emphasis on campaigning, on fighting for things that matter. And I’m putting decision makers in the hot seat. I also found him to be quite practical and clear eyed in his assessment of the political terrain. So let’s get into it. And I’m excited to have you here. Thanks for being here.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  03:13

Thank you. Well, excited to be here.

William Lawrence  03:15

The first episodes of this show that we’re working on right now are reviewing left in progressive organizing during the Obama and Trump years, this upsurge of movements. So why don’t you just start out by telling us a bit about yourself? How you got your start in this kind of work?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  03:33

Yeah, I mean, me and my family migrated from Lima, Peru in 2001, we were reuniting with my father, who had been in the country for a year earlier. We knew that the plan was to try to make it to the US whichever way we could. I grew up in the poorest district in Lima, which is home to a million people, over a million people in the outskirts of downtown. And it’s kind of like the district that just grows because people from from the Andes from the mountains right, from poorest parts of the country come to settle. And yeah, you know, violence, poverty, what’s definitely a primary factor for deciding to migrate. We were able to obtain a visa, a six month visa to come to the US, which was incredibly hard for my family. Because if they suspect that you’re gonna stay, they don’t issue your visa, right. So we had to really pull some strings and just figure out ways that my mom did for us. Yeah, and I migrated in January of 2001, with a six month visa, and we know that after a six month visa expired, we will become undocumented immigrants in the US, you know. Yeah, and I would say that another factor is because I had all their family members, cousins, you know, who were graduating college, getting their degrees and they couldn’t really They work in the professions that they envision for themselves, right? A lot of our family members, even the ones that were able to get educated, what ended up cleaning offices driving taxis, you know, that, like, my parents just wanted us, me and my brother to be able to do what we want it, you know? So, yeah, I would say under, under the idea of sort of, you know, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and all of that good stuff that we have in the constitution.

William Lawrence  05:31

So you arrived here, and then you found at some point that perhaps liberty in the pursuit of happiness wasn’t fully available to the extent that you might have wanted, and that was also true for a lot of other undocumented immigrants like yourself. So could you talk about how you became involved in community organizing, to try to improve conditions?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  05:54

Yeah, I would say that my dad and my own experience, my parents, experiences and my own experience, you know, so I’ll speak for myself first, I was the older brother, you know. And it was clear that my parents wanted me to go to college. And unlike many other undocumented youth growing in this country, my parents never hid the fact that I was on on documentary, you know, we know that it’ll be an obstacle at some point, we kind of plan to save some money, figure out a way to afford my education. For me. You know, I was a sophomore in college at the time, I was the president of a Latino organization on campus. And I had been reelected to be president for my junior year. But I knew that I either was going to have to take a semester off, or become a part time student to save some money, because the kind of like college fund that my family had in the bank account was the the pleated through through the first two years of funding my education. I’m paying international rates being out of state fees, no, no access to state or federal financial aid. Very, very limited access to scholarships, you know, we’re talking about, I enrolled into college six, seven years before the DACA program came into existence, right. So the tools, the Arsenal’s that undocumented youth had at the time were very, very limited. You know, there wasn’t a national network of advocacy, you know, undocumented youth that were trying to afford their college education were isolated. There wasn’t any coming out of the shadows actions are coming out as undocumented ascent afraid that we saw years later, it was an experience I that I lived in isolation until the end of my sophomore year, where I had to tell my membership as the president of the Latino organization on campus, in a meeting with Around 150 180 people, that I wasn’t going to be able to serve as president, because I was, I may not be in school next semester. And you might be better off electing a new president, you know, and then when they asked me why I really hadn’t prepared to answer that question fully. But I essentially told the full membership that I was undocumented, you know, and that I had to pay all these extra fees that my tuition was more expensive, that even though I grew up in New Jersey, and I was going to a jersey funded state school, I had to pay our state fees and international rates. And then at the end of the meeting, one of my mentors came to me and suggested that I run for student government, you know, because at the time in my campus, it was actually a position that was a stipend by the school. We basically I ran, I became the vice president of student government. And once I was in office, you know, I had office hours have my own office, also everyone in my campus, nor was undocumented at the point, you know, so they were voting for me to essentially keep me on campus. I also became an RA. So I also had my room and board and meal plans paid for through my labor as NRA. So I realized really early on that when you speak up, you know, laws may not change, policy may not change, but people will come to support, you know, and there were so many people on campus that appreciated me that loved me that cared for me, did not know about my own struggle. But once they heard that I needed to pour it, they came to my to my aid.

William Lawrence  09:40

This was a broader trend that was happening at this time. So I think we’re talking about 2006 2007 2008. You mentioned out of the shadows, which is a phrase I remember, maybe there were some even demonstrations that were about undocumented people coming out of the shadows coming out as undocumented. Like you’d Did you also mentioned undocumented and unafraid, which became a rallying cry for undocumented youth in this period? So could you just talk about how what you experienced was something that other undocumented youth were experiencing, and then starting to connect around these stories of coming out as undocumented and starting to advocate for yourself?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  10:22

Yeah, I would say, you know, of course, this was kind of like in the moment type of I need to explain to people, that one that wanted me to be a part of this organization, why I couldn’t be on campus, or why I may not be on campus next semester. So obviously, the whole coming out of the shadows coming out as undocumented and unafraid. And all on apologetic, they became orchestrated call to actions by the movement to shed light on that humanity, youth that, like me, wanted to go to college or wanted to serve in the military couldn’t do it were limited. And essentially, you know, we’re stuck. And I think many of these people we now know as DACA, recipients, DACA, holders, the DACA kids, right? Or the dreamer, kids, as we were known, we be for that, you know, I will say that, I came out in 2007, which was maybe like two or three years before the national trend. And obviously, I wasn’t a part of the movement at that point. But it is the reason why I started to organize. You see, after I came out as an undocumented student, many other students in my college campus, including members of my own organization that I was the president of started reaching out, you know, through Facebook Messenger, or just like, telling me that they wanted me to meet in this private room in the library. And they started coming out to me, because I became the only other person on campus who they know, you know. So I realized that there were these groups of undocumented students in my campus. And I think I was able to identify maybe up to 10 of them, eight to 10 of them who, who told me their own stories. And then, like, like, we were just sharing, you know, our own experience, and just sharing how we were making it, you know, but what also started happening is that other students from other college campuses started reaching out to me, because the story got a little out of the school, as well, you know, and then I was feeling overwhelmed getting all of these requests for support. Because if you think about it, you know, I’m in student government. So my tuition is basically paid by my work as vice president, right? My room and board and meal plans are paid for by my work as an RA, I was even making some money as a tutor and mentor. So I had a privilege experience, even in my own document experience in my college campus. And people wanted me to help them figure out their own situations, you know, so I started Googling, you know, support for undocumented students, I found out that there’s this bill called the DREAM Act at the federal level. And then also state efforts that are called in state to a tuition bills that would allow on undocumented students to pay in state tuition rates, like their peers, you know, and then I found out that there were early advocacy groups for undocumented youth, like, I got connected with the New York State Youth Leadership Council in New York City. I message them and I say, Hey, I have about 25 to 30 students that just told me they’re undocumented in the last six months, and they need support. And they literally came from New York to New Jersey. They throw $1,000 to fund a training, and we train 30 undocumented students in New Jersey. And then through that, me and four other people co founded the New Jersey dream coalition, you know, so we got trained by the wild sea, in New York, we understood that if we wanted things to be better for us, we had to advocate for the in state tuition in New Jersey, and also for the DREAM Act at the federal level, right. And then, we co founded the New Jersey dreamer Coalition, which became the first advocacy group for undocumented youth in my state, you know, and that’s how I got started in organizing.

William Lawrence  14:28

What I remember from 2010 is seeing the dream movement really breakthrough to the political mainstream in a new way. And what stuck out to me at the time was that you were practicing a much more combative form of politics than I had previously seen from other millennial activists. We were well into the disappointing stage of Obama’s first term at this time. And you were really inspiring to me not just because of the righteousness of your demand for the DREAM Act, but because you were showing a willingness to stick it to Obama by vein rhetorical and political hardball. So could you tell us a bit about those years? And how you experienced it?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  15:06

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think those were really the golden years. So immigrant youth or organizing. And let me actually backtrack a little bit, you know, so we co founded the New Jersey dream coalition, you kind of reference, there were four college students, who started what they call the trail of dreams, which was a march from Miami to the sea, right. And then this really created a lot of awareness about the issue. And this was incredibly courageous, right. So like, they’re marching for two months by foot, you know, doing coming out actions as undocumented and unafraid in community centers, church basements, town halls, and so forth. You know, so a lot of youth throughout the country who were doing similar things like I was doing, like, you know, creating little dream teams in our colleges, universities, you know, churches, place of worship community centers, and started connecting with this group. And then we we started meeting at the national level, you know, to create awareness for the DREAM Act. And those were the people that actually started united, we dream as a national network, right. And we realize that immigrant advocacy was a space that was dominated by the unions, you know. And then we learned that a lot of the immigrant bills that were brought up to the table was a compromise between labor and business, right, between unions and Chamber of Commerce, right,

William Lawrence  16:51

because they’re interested in the labor force and the composition of the labor force is their primary concern.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  16:57

Absolutely. And I think that it was really rooted around the need to feel a capitalistic society by integrating a new labor force and protecting them. And I think that the youth really brought other elements around, how do we humanize immigrants? You know, because I feel like, one of the youth is, is that we just don’t want to be workers, you know, like, our parents brought us to this country so that we could live free lives, you know, so we can do things differently than how it would have been in our country where maybe we would have been just one more worker, you know. And I think that we really inherited, that will, you know, to shatter that glass ceilings, you know, to really, you know, figure out how we can actually live fully, you know, beyond just workers. And I think that is the essence of the immigrant youth movement. You know, many of us grew up having oppressed parents who would complain at home, about how they’re were exploited, how their wages were stolen, how they had to fear, immigration, or ICE raids at their workplace. And I think a lot of the youth that created the youth movement and spaces like United We Dream, or near the national immigrant youth Alliance, right. We’re also not fighting for us, but also for our parents, you know. So initially, there was an internal revolution within the movement, where the youth was trying to really create, create a space of its own, you know. And then in 2010, we actually had, and then again, you know, I think that, that we, we, we kind of have to make the case as to why the youth was so frustrated with Obama. Right. And that is because in 2006, we had the mega marches, right, which were the largest demonstrations in the history of the country up until that point, you know, we literally had millions of people activated across the country, like cities like LA, they had marches of anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people. You know,

William Lawrence  19:14

this was in response to anti immigrant bills that were moving forward in Arizona, and perhaps, on the table in California as well.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  19:21

Actually, there was a federal bill called the sensor Brenner bill, which was introduced by Rep. Sensenbrenner, which would, it would immediately criminalize every undocumented immigrant in the United States, regardless of what you have done just just for being in the United States, as an undocumented, a migrant, you know, and then also it would criminalize anyone who gives aid to undocumented immigrants. So if you are a Catholic pastor, or you’re not Catholic priest, and your congregation is 80% on documented immigrants, you could be charged with crime. If you are a land owning person, and you have a house and you have tenants who are on document that you could be charged with a crime, even if you’re, you know, a soccer mom, and you take your kids to play soccer, and sometimes you give your friend’s kids arrived, and that kid is an undocumented immigrant, you could be charged with a crime. And this bill was so extremist, right? That it actually activated not just the immigrant community, but also the immigrant TV networks, the Spanish media, the Catholic Church, I’ve never seen the Catholic Church be so strongly against an anti immigrant bill, because they realized that they could lose portions of their congregations. You know, and this led up to actually a historic Mayday in 2006, where we had this mag and marches, you know, and I think sometimes we highlight the big cities, like, you know, like, yeah, it was big in New York City, or in orange, Chicago, or in LA, you know, but even places like Boston, for example, there were a quarter million people in the streets in Boston, you know. And that’s actually when you started to see a realignment of both parties, because up until that point, both parties in rhetoric and in policy, were very explicit, that there was a bipartisan compromise, to criminalize immigrants in the United States, right, like we saw this through the crime bill, and then also to the Erica bill and the Aurora bills that were passed under the Clinton administration, right. 911 make things worse. And I would say that 911, right, and the war of terror, and then the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. We’re actually a period of anti immigrant sentiment and then then Sensenbrenner Bill was literally the straw that broke the camel’s back up until the point that the immigrants were like, We’re fed up. Enough is enough, we gotta turn the page over. And then at that point, use of the Democratic Party embraced a pathway to citizenship or legalization, and then you saw the Republican Party take the right, you know, extreme. So, so supporting figures like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in Arizona Minutemen in the border, who were shooting are undocumented immigrants, or anybody who they thought was an undocumented immigrant crossing the border. So like you saw a split of the parties, right? With Democrats supporting league legalization bills, and then with Republicans shifting, and talking about border security.

William Lawrence  22:45

And yet, just to take us back to where you started by 2010. You mentioned how the undocumented youth were dissatisfied with the with the Democrats and with perhaps some of the legacy organizations in the Immigrant Movement. So how did we get there from 20, from 2006.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  23:03

In December 2010, something really important happened, which is the failure of the Dream Act. I remember I basically took off school after Thanksgiving, like many undocumented youth who were now under the banner of United We Dream, we basically move to the sea to try to pass the DREAM Act in November and December of 2010. We had a historic passage in the house on December 18 2010, where for the first time that REMAX had passed in any chamber, you know, the DREAM Act was originally introduced in 2001. We’re talking about nine years later, finally makes it through the House. And then in the Senate. The Republicans called for a filibuster. We had 55 Democrats in the Senate, you know. And on, on one side, the Republicans call for a filibuster. So now we need 60 votes. Actually, there were 60 Democrats in the Senate at the time, which is why we were so upset, not just with Republicans, but also with the Democratic Party. And then we only got 55 votes, but there were five Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act Up up in that point, you know, like, Joe Manchin still there, you know. And then there were tester McCaskill, you know, I know that Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act,

William Lawrence  24:36

in the movement really put so much on the line just in terms of money, organization, passion and emotion. I mean, I remember hearing stories about how you all were, you know, in DC for weeks on end, there were hunger strikers. There were there were undocumented youth, giving blood to show or willingness to give Yeah, after all that came came up five short five votes short in the Senate. Yeah. So I can imagine that that was a radicalizing moment.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  25:09

That was a radicalizing moment. You know, and I think that the movement internally turn a moment of poor public the, the, the feet to really launch the next face of the movement, you know. So it was like December 22, a lot of us were still in DC. And we’re like, okay, we need to go home, you know, because Christmas is coming up, New Year’s coming up. A lot of us had to make up finals and tests, you know, because we left school. But then we had a national gathering with United We Dream, I think it was in February of 2011, you know, and during this period of reflection, towards the end of December, trying to process that the DREAM Act failed. And then January and February, we realize that we’re not winning the legislative battle. But all of these images that you’re talking about, you know, undocumented youth coming out of the shadows, undocumented and unafraid, being on the press having our own bill donating blood during hunger strikes, right. They really started to capture the media and the public. And we realized that poll after poll, actually the support for undocumented youth and a pathway to legalization. Overnight, it went from like less than 50% to 75% 80%, you know, across across the spectrum, you know, even conservatives, independents, they were supportive of, of a pathway to citizenship, you know, and we can see the reflection, even in the way that Trump handled DACA, during his presidency, where he basically threw it to the courts. He could have actually ended the program if he wanted to. But he even knew that that was a hot potato even for him, you know? So, yeah, so we came together, and we realized we have the public on our side. And we’re going to point that spear towards the Obama administration. You know, the Obama administration was supposed to be, you know, he was the president that came in to office. And on the media in a in Univision to the most famous anchor, Jorge Ramos. He asked him, What is His plan for immigration reform, and Obama had said, I’m gonna write a bill within the first 100 days, and I’m gonna pass immigration reform within the first year, you know, so now we’re going into year three, immigration reform failed, the DREAM Act failed, because five of your Democratic senators voted against this bill. And we wanted to really put the pressure on on on Obama. You know, obviously, when we started sharing that idea with allies, partners, they didn’t like it. Because they knew that we had Mitt Romney on the other end, preaching self deportation. And we were told what many people are told, right? Sometimes we have to put our head down is presidential election season. And the and, you know, the opposition is worse than what we have now. And maybe we get Obama elected, we can expect a legalization bill in what 2013. But we realized that there was something that we had to do with the support that we had, you know, because literally all of the affiliates, all of the dream teams, were getting media requests to be like, we want dreamers in our studio, we want interviews with undocumented youth, people really felt the charisma of undocumented students trying to go to college. And we realized that it was something that we can leverage, you know, so we decided to run a campaign, targeting the Obama administration. And this is really what we learned how to escalate, you know, we heckled him, both of them anywhere he went, it was very common, and actually expected, right that when he was speaking, he would be in interrupted by undocumented youth. We also started to occupy his campaign of offices, you know, which I think that was the highest point of escalation, because I don’t even think they were expecting that. And it was really hard to justify, you know, it was really hard for Obama to make the case publicly and to campaign. You know, I remember I’m now in Denver, and I hear the stories today that the Denver field office could not campaign at all when Colorado was a swing state. You know, I’m actually another part that I want to share that also brings our leverage as to how we want that gun is because there were some other group of dreamers that we’re meeting with Senator Marco Rubio who’s saw that Obama was taking a lot of heat on immigration. And because he had his own presidential ambitions that down the line, and we’re talking about period of time before Trump, you know, we’re kind of like the mainstream thinking of the, of the Republican Party that was preached by George Bush and John McCain, right, was that we need some of the Latino electorate and the immigrant electorate to make it to the White House. Right. And kind of like their sweet spot is, if we win anywhere from 30, from 35 to 40% of the Latino vote, we can win the White House, you know, like they knew that they weren’t going to compete for the majority. But under that line of thought, Senator Marco Rubio was getting ready to introduce the stars Act, which was his own version of the Dream Act, you know. So I think that the combination of Obama being heckled everywhere he went, and that the DNC not being able to really operate as a grassroots operation to target voters in key states, along with Senator Marco Rubio, potentially stealing the spotlight from Obama on immigration, were the factors that came together for that DACA announcement.

William Lawrence  31:13

DACA was a really big victory that provided legal protection to around 800,000 immigrant youth. And if organizing is about winning material gains for masses of ordinary people. This is an extraordinary example of doing just that. And again, even though I had no personal stake in DACA, as an individual, it gave me a lot of courage, and hope that you all were able to fight for and win something so significant, shifting away from the DACA. And the DREAM Act in particular. In this time, 2012, through around 2015, the youth movement was becoming increasingly well networked and connected across different identity groups and issue areas. So I remember starting meeting undocumented youth and Dream Act organizers through events like the National Student power convergence in the summer of 2012, and momentum trainings, which got going in 2014, and 2015. And there were, I’m sure lots of other events to where people were crossing over between the racial justice movement, Immigrant Movement, climate movement, and so on. I’m curious, just to hear about how you experienced those years. Did you and your comrades consider yourself at the beginning to be part of something called the left or a broader progressive movement? Or was that something that had to develop over time through starting to meet other people who were also young and working on different but related issues? Yeah,

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  32:47

I mean, I would say that, when in the early united, we dream days, you know, undocumented youth advocacy days, I would say, from 2009 to 2012. You know, we were, like, we will come to DC, and we will live out of a church base man, you know, just like sleep in, you know, in the floor sleeping bag,

William Lawrence  33:12

it was like that was super, super grassroots.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  33:16

We had basically a showering schedule that ran over a night to make sure that people that 500 People could shower in a church that only has two showers, you know, it was that kind of system, you know, and a lot, actually a lot of our internal criticals. Right, in the movement, like unions, right, more established Latino organizations, older Immigrant Rights Network, who were really against the work that we were doing targeting the president. Right, I were actually the first ones to be like, You know what, that was great. And we’re gonna sue for you, you know, so we started getting a lot of funding, we started getting a lot of more public recognition in other spaces, right. And I think this really changed the nature of who we were. We also didn’t have a shared ideology at the time. I mean, most of the immigrant youth pipeline, were basically either students who were about to graduate high school, I needed to figure out how to go to college. So I’m talking about like, 16 1718 year olds, or kids in college in the early years, you know, like me like 1920, right. So, initially, I don’t think any of us were over 25. And most of us were actually under 20, you know, so there wasn’t a shared ideology that we have. And a lot of us didn’t come from households that had a shared political ideology, because we were coming from immigrant households where we were just trying to make it through. A lot of our parents did not get a college education. I think some some of them were involved. You You know, in leftist movements in Latin America, but it wasn’t a big portion of them. And we really identify as a single issue organization. But there were moments of solidarity where, for example, sometimes will be in DC where there is, I remember there was a vote around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy the same week that that remark was voted on. And there were. So like, that was a moment of solidarity with queer folks, right, with non gender non conforming LGBTQ plus. Right. Yeah. And, and even internally, we started shaping other spaces to make sure that we create awareness, you know, and also pipelines of support for black immigrants, you know, because a lot of times it’s dominated by the brown or the white passing, also like pilings of support for queer immigrants in our base, you know, so I think that the immigrant youth movement had to reinvent itself several times, you know, to be more inclusive, to be more expensive, you know, and, and to actually fit in what we call the left, you know, but I would say that 2012 was also a turning point, in terms of how the immigrant youth movement became from being super grassroots to actually been more stablished. You know, we got funding, like we had never gotten in the past. Right. And there were different trains of thoughts, you know, there were even debates about how do we win DACA? You know, was it through being an agitation of force outside game public confrontation, direct action? Was that because we were also meeting with Democrats? You know, there were the different camps, you know, and I think personally, for me, I think that there’s many different ways to adapt, and to kind of like nurture different theories of change. But my biggest regret min post 2012. And after we won DACA, is that we didn’t really solidify the pipeline’s that were bringing so many youth into our base. I mean, we went like we literally had presence in all 50 states. We had dream teams in most colleges, you know. And I think that after the movement became so focused on the scene, maintaining a DC office and a lobby operation in the sea. It became at the expense of supporting the pipelines, you know, that was bringing that were like pipelines to radicalize youth into our base, you know, and I think that that we got stuck there.

William Lawrence  37:40

You’re listening to the hegemonic con from convergence magazine. After a short break, we’ll continue our conversation with Carlos Rojas, Rodriguez.


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William Lawrence  38:38

Welcome back to our interview with Carlos Rojas Rodriguez on the hegemonic con podcast. Before the break, Carlos was reflecting on the perils of opening up a DC lobby operation and the apparent trade offs between maintaining that operation over time and maintaining the depth of the organizing happening among the grassroots base. I just wanted to point out that this is a very familiar story, to state the obvious. Many of us have experienced to at least some extent the perils of institutionalization and the many barriers to building a political organization that is durable and politically savvy and vibrant at the grassroots. This will be a consistent theme of the show, and we’re going to keep getting after it. Okay, now back to the interview. I asked Carlos to talk about his shift, which happened after the DACA victory in 2012. From immigrant youth organizing to seeking to organize all of the 11 million immigrants in the United States.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  39:34

Yeah, I mean, we realized early on that there was this dreamer narrative that was taking place. You know, I referenced some polling, where because of our advocacy for the dreamer, there were specific polling about undocumented youth and how over time right through our visibility in the press, our actions, you know, the coming Out of the Shadows, during the hunger strikes, right advocating for for the DREAM Act, we realize that the support for undocumented youth trying to go to college and getting a pathway to citizenship was about 75 to 80%. But if you were to ask the same question to the same people about a legalization for the 11 million, you know, it would be like 50 to 60%, maybe, you know, significantly lower right, and more so on conservative polls, or like posts targeting Republican voters and so forth. So that was the first, you know, clue that there was that like, like, we’re not bringing our whole community to our advocacy, you know, we’re actually fracturing the community in a way that it is not necessarily bad, but that it feels inherently bad, you know, because these are our parents, these are, you know, our theosophy, as well, as well as, you know, parents like mine, like my mom was a was a teacher in Peru, you know, and she gave up her her dream profession to work in a warehouse in New Jersey, so that I could go to college and do what I want it, you know. So it felt in contradiction with our values, you know, and, and our families and our communities. From a personal standpoint. At the end of 2012, I decided that I was done with immigrant youth. Because personally, I said, You know what this will like, we build something really powerful here. And I actually want to focus on organizing all the immigrants. And this is why I went to work for Faith in Action and faith in New Jersey, because I was going to be hired to work in congregations, which were mostly older immigrants, you know, and I started working on deportation, the fence, getting immigrants out of the detention centers, we started fighting for the campaign for citizenship, which was let’s get a path to citizenship for the 11 million. And also at the state level, we were fighting for a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to have access to a driver’s license. And the reason for that is because immigrants want their license because it’s better employment or opportunities for them. But also, because we know that the reason why so many people were getting the portrait, and kind of like, the easiest way to end up in deportation proceedings as an older undocumented immigrant is because you’re driving a car without a license, and you have a negative interaction with law enforcement. So that was my own decision at the time, you know, but there was definitely a growing internal critique of this dreamer narrative that we had created, you know, that it wasn’t intentional. But it was something that politicians and the media used intentionally to separate our communities, you know, and it was definitely a movement tension that’s still here to today. You know, even when you talk about bills and legislation, the more inclusive the bill is the least likely that Democrats are going to sue for it. Right. But we talked about DACA. Yeah, like, yeah, there’s always a bill for that, you know.

William Lawrence  43:42

So the question then, and now is, is this strategic because it’s winnable or is more winnable allows us to fight and build power so that we can win more later? Or are we undercutting ourselves by engaging in rhetoric that is divisive of our own community?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  44:01

Well, you know, I think the question is easy is easy to answer to day, you know, because like, there’s no vehicle for Congress to pass anything, you know, so we don’t have to dwell into the what the strategic do we do, like, do we lower the bar? You know, and there might be a disagreement whether Congress could pass something or not, you know, I think from a moral standpoint, we shouldn’t be fighting for anything that’s less than the 11 million. And also, from a strategic standpoint, we shouldn’t be lowering the bar, because then when there’s a political window for something that could be passed, and Democrats were like, What are they gonna do? Well, you already told us three years ago, that you only want to legalize 700,000 DACA recipients as opposed to 11 million undocumented immigrants. You know, so we the groups that I work, I tell them, you know, like, we don’t have to get into that question, because Congress is not a vehicle that’s going to pass a legalization bill, whether it is five people or 20 million people and time soon, you know, now going after the administration is, is a different question, demanding executive action is a different quick question, you know?

William Lawrence  45:09

Yeah, I like that point. It’s like, regardless of how you feel about the inside game, definitely don’t negotiate against yourself at a time when there’s nothing to be won in Congress. So now I want to ask you a question about how the political dynamics changed in the transition from Obama to Trump. As we know, deportations reached an all time high under Obama. And that led him to be dubbed the deporter in chief by immigrant advocates. And Trump followed up by really doubling down on the anti immigrant rhetoric, advancing certain policies like the Muslim ban, family separation, and of course, the wall, which is like his signature proposal. But according to some statistics, deportations under Trump may have actually declined, compared to Obama, but it sort of depends on how you count it. From the your perspective, and the perspective of the communities you’re connected to and your experience, did the Obama to Trump transition feel like much of a change? Or was it just another face on the same old deportation machine?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  46:18

I think for those who understand immigration policy, and our other, you know, are kind of like at the center of the immigrant rights movement, the change wasn’t that big. But I feel like from an organizing standpoint, being able to activate people directly impacted people, it definitely had a huge impact, you know, immigrant bases that were already organized, crumbled, you know, there was even a fit, like, during the Obama years, there was so much civil disobedience, right, direct action, people were like, basically, the growing immigrant base that we got from winning DACA. And all of those years, which was really powerful in 2013 2014, it really fractured, you know, a lot of people lost hope, because the rhetoric was so anti immigrant. Right. And you could just feel the white nationalism, narrative, right, coming from the most powerful person in the world. You know, so I would say, from an organizing standpoint, it made it harder to organize. It made it harder to energize people, it made it harder to keep an optimistic mindset about the future, you know, and a lot of the organizers basis also fell apart. But if we’re talking about specifically from like, conditions of immigrants in detention centers from immigration policy, it was basically the same, you know, and even that transition from Trump to bi and it’s been the same, you know, like, That hasn’t changed.

William Lawrence  47:56

But it’s an interesting perspective that you share, because some people would say, oh, it’s actually good if they’re more brazen, and the rhetoric is more is more blatant, because that will help organizing because it will make the character of the system more clear. But you’re saying actually, the fear factor, overrode that, and there was a sense that something could get done under Obama, that maybe wasn’t there under Trump. So it people kind of went underground.

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  48:22

I’m talking about from the perspective of empowering undocumented immigrants, you know, what we had under Trump was a lot of enraged allies, who cared about immigration during the Trump years, because they actually just care more about going after Trump than trying to, you know, have a pro immigrant country. But those were allies that after we had Biden just wanted to believe that we’re in a different era on immigration. Right. So I would say from like, the whole momentum style of organizing during moments of the whirlwind, you know, and trying to change public opinion, yeah, like those were great years. But from like a grassroots, let’s build the base sustainable base, that’s not going to abandon us. The minute we have a Democratic president that Yeah, like that was a failure. But yeah, I mean, like, we did have powerful moments like the Muslim ban at the airports, you know, I mean, with cosecha, we had a lot of moments where we shut down Trump Tower and call for marches and had 1000s of people, you know, but I think that it was a Trump was just such a polarizing figure, that people were just showing up for any issue. And not many of those efforts actually turn into a sustainable, reliable, dependable base. You know, that’s what I care as an organizer, you know, a base is going to show up in the sunny days and also in the middle of the winter.

William Lawrence  49:50

Why don’t I ask on this show, we’re defining ideology as how the world works, your view about how the world works. So how would you say that you’re Are ideology, your view of how the world works has changed as a result of these last 15 years of your organizing experience? Like what do you know now that you would have liked to know, back in 2006, or 2010, or even 2015?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  50:15

I think that’s some of the lessons that I learned that I keep on that are sacred to me. I learned them really early on, you know, those confrontation years against the Obama administration, were really instructional for me. And I would say, you know, if you ask, were like, how do I think a theory of change works? I think that we have too many people, at least on immigrant rights spaces and labor spaces. Maybe we can extend this to other movements. I don’t know, because I haven’t been in them. But at least in the movements that I have been a part of that I have been building and so putting, we have way too many insiders, you know, like, we have way too many people who want to play the inside game. We have way too many people who want to run for office, we have way too many people who kind of like, want to be in the small room where everything happens, you know, and I don’t think that we have enough people teaching the methods of public confrontation, public shaming, targeting direct action, you know. And, yeah, I feel like that’s where I invest. My organizing in, you know, in radicalizing folks, to not depend so much in the political relationships, and really target not just the opposition, but then target the people that you have the most leverage over, which are Democrats themselves, you know, so, like, that’s more from like a tactical standpoint, I say, from an ideological, you know, I feel like I’m still shaping my ideological identity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to organize from like, or engage in a campaign. I would say that, because of, kind of like the political climate that we’re on. I feel like borders. Just one something. Just one, someone who they can trust. I think of like, Why did Trump became such a big figure? Why did Bernie almost win despite the DNC Reagan everything? You know, why did Fetterman one despite his health conditions, you know, and it is because more than being on the left on the right, and the center, people just want someone they can trust? They can be leave, you know, and there’s a way and I think that voters actually have developed our radar for actually understanding when someone is bullshitting you, you know, and when someone seems legit and trustworthy, you know. So like, I would say, I definitely lean into populism, I think populism is incredibly powerful. You know, I feel like Bernie has a part of the equation, right? You know, and I think Bernie is also like, I love the Bernie 2016 campaign, which I wasn’t a part of. And then I love the Bernie 2020 campaign for different reasons, because I feel like he was trying to appeal more to people of color, you know, black folks, you know, but it also came at the expense of Santee Mills, you know, so I definitely believe that Bernie has a piece of the pie, right? You know, but there is always like, especially when it comes to a class and analysis. And I think in the left, we’re still trying to figure out how do we develop, you know, a gender, you know, analysis, how do we develop a race analysis, without falling into the pitfalls of virtue signaling and identity politics? You know, I think that we’re still trying to develop that code, collectively, you know, because I feel like when I look at what the elites are doing, they know what the trend is. And they basically know how to, for example, position someone like Kamala Harris, as a leader, you know, even though she’s out of touch with so many things that that we want, as progressives, but they know that we struggle, how to actually navigate the whole race and class to get you know,

William Lawrence  54:34

you ended up working for Bernie’s campaign and 2020 I’m curious to hear how you decided to work on that campaign and what your day to day was like?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  54:42

Yeah, um, so I joined the Bernie campaign January 3 2020. Yeah. And I went to Iowa, you know, and the Iowa elections were just maybe like five, six weeks away. Iowa winter, it’s brutal. And what I really enjoyed the most is because I was joining the Bernie campaign through their constituency program. So I was specifically going to focus on working class Spanish speaking voters. And I think I could never see myself working for a political candidate. But when I think that this all Jewish white guy, in his 80s had seen that a 6% electorate, of people of color in Iowa meant something enough to invest resources on, you know, I was really moved by that because I don’t think I had ever seen a candidate, be so thoughtful from my community, you know, which are a lot of times Spanish speaking voters, I do have family members who have who are you USA citizens, you know. And what was really powerful is that this is the year that they launch the satellite caucuses, you know, so basically, the Iowa Democratic Party had agreed to hold special caucusing. To be sensitive to people that may not speak the language or may have fears of going through regular caucuses. So we had caucuses programs at mosques that we had staff for, we had an outcome at community centers, where they taught ESL, you know, for Spanish speaking voters. So my so my job was just knocking doors. Speaking to people in Spanish, who did not know anything about caucusing, who maybe were telling me stories, like, you know, what, I want to caucus, but my employer, like I went 10 years ago, and my employer was there. And I felt weird about being in that space, you know, and then we told them, Well, we have a special caucus this year at this place, go to this community college, and then I’m very proud to say that I was the captain of my caucus, and then he went 96% for Bernie, you know, so that means that we got all the electorate there, you know, and we had similar stories, like the largest mosque in Des Moines, even something like 9093 94% for Bernie, you know, we had a constituency program to make sure that we can reach those communities, right, like Muslim Arabica communities, right. And I was really proud, you know, to be just a small fraction of that 6% of voters that matters so much. But when Pete Buttigieg was trying to claim victory prematurely, those satellite caucuses, numbers kept coming in, and it was questionable, right. So I was very proud of of my work. And then after that, I traveled to California for Super to Tuesday, you know, and along the way, we saw the results in New Hampshire, which were incredible. We saw the results in Nevada, I mean, after Nevada, we we were like how can we lose this, you know, we’re in a field of like 1210 candidates, Bernie is winning 70% of the Latino vote, that’s, that’s insane. But then, you know, the establishment realign really quickly. We gotta give them props for being incredibly disciplined, you know, for having Obama speed dialing everybody and whipping everyone in place, you know, and on the left, we did not have the same discipline. But what I would say is that I feel like Bernie was he, he had felt as an outsider in the party for so long, that when even people in in the own party were like, okay, Bernie, we know you’re gonna win. So take so take the wheel, you know, there was hesitancy to do that.

William Lawrence  58:59

Yes. There was the one speech after in Nevada and El Paso, interrupting myself to say, actually, it was San Antonio, where it was like, that was the moment to embrace, embrace everybody to say I am. I’m a leader. I know that this may be a little unusual, or a little unexpected for some of you, but I’m here to say I’m a leader for every Democrat in this party, and we’re going to take as Trump didn’t do that,

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  59:29

that that was the moment to pivot. But I mean, I, I love Bernie, I love Bernie, you know, I feel like Bernie has taught me so much. And without Bernie, I wouldn’t be thinking about politics. You know, sometimes I think about running and I’m like, it’s because of Bernie because I feel like yeah, like we figure something out there. You know, and I keep in touch with so many of my comrades from from from the Bernie campaign, but I still get in conversations and have drinks with people from the campaign and we’re like we We could go back three years ago, you know, and kind of like, just redo the thing for one day because that’s like, that’s all we needed, you know? Yeah. Like, like de Blasio was the first one to say, okay, Bernie, do the thing, you know? Because he was the first like, establishment person from the party that endorse Bernie, you know,

William Lawrence  1:00:21

I forgot that he did that. I just got two more questions here. So the first one is, what are you sitting with now, as far as unanswered questions like, What are you wrestling with? When you think about what you ought to be doing, or what we ought to be doing, and you can take it as narrow or as broad as you want, here in 2023 2024, and over the rest of this decade?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  1:00:49

Yeah, I mean, I think I am really worried. Because I feel like, I think what the Democratic Party does is that they over celebrate, and they also overestimate, I feel like they’re overestimating Trump. You know,

William Lawrence  1:01:06

you think under estimating, you said overestimating, but just to be clear us, do you think they’re underestimating Trump?

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez  1:01:12

Under Trump? Yeah. You know, like, I see many political operatives in Democratic Party, just, you know, even saying that, yeah, even if it narrows the Republican field to just him, we want to, like we want him to be the candidate. And I think that’s the wrong political instinct. When you ask him policy questions, that’s when you get him. But if you put him on a political circus, he’s gonna come on top. I think that the way that the Biden administration handled, the rail derailment in East Palestine is going to come to bite him in the US. I’m worried about the economy. Right? Inflation, right. And as always, it’s the economy, stupid, you know, and I think that despite what was accomplished, to mitigate the damage of the midterms, we could be falling. I’m worried about 2024. And then on a personal level, you know, I feel like what I know I’m always going to be doing is having relationships with immigrant workers with organizers who want to organize their own labor rights, immigrant rights, coaching them by sharing my own experience, always preaching poke the bear in the eye every time you get a chance, you know, because there’s gonna be a lot of people that are gonna mitigate that damage, and we don’t have to do that.

William Lawrence  1:02:34

All right, let’s, uh, let’s close it there. Thank you so much, Carlos. All right, thanks.

William Lawrence  1:02:45

That was Carlos Rojas, Rodriguez. I love Carlos his final words that he left us with. Always in relationship with workers, coaching, developing leadership, building teams, training people, always poking the bear in the eye, every time we get the chance that someone who is an organizer and a campaigner. There’s a lot that we don’t know. And there’s a lot that we can’t be sure of. But he’s going to be with the people fighting for something that matters, and challenging power. I think that’s a code that one can really live by. Thanks again to Carlos for the excellent interview, signed me up as a member of the bear poker society. This podcast is written and hosted by me William Lawrence. Our producer is Josh l Stroh, and it is published by convergence magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon subscriber of convergence for as low as $2 per month at Mac. You can find a direct link in the show notes. Thanks for listening to the hegemonic con.

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