“I’d like to remind us that it’s very new in human history, that we have had borders,” Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem told a crowd of students, faculty and activists gathered at Los Angeles City College’s Herb Alpert Music Center last Monday. “In the short history of this young nation, we have gone through enormous periods of racism when it comes to immigration.”
Last week, the campus came alive when the renowned feminist writer joined activist and entrepreneur Samantha Ramirez-Herrera for a conversation about the now-endangered Obama-era program DACA, which protected millions of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation.
President Trump has directed Congress to decide the fate of DACA enrollees, known as DREAMers, by March 12, when he will allow the program to expire. After Steinem and Ramirez-Herrera spoke, they handed the mic off to Melody Klingenfuss, the statewide youth organizer of the California Dream Network, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of immigrants and undocumented people through community organizing, and offering assistance in completing legal forms. According to Klingenfuss, since 2012, the organization has helped over 10,000 DREAMers complete their paperwork—and in the last few months alone, helped 800.
Ramirez-Herrera, a DREAMer herself, is an expert in producing multimedia communication projects for diverse audiences, and is the founder of a digital platform for the empowerment of girls and women of color called Kick Ass Girl Pow Wow as well as an online creative content agency run by people of color. She walked audiences through her experiences growing up as a young undocumented immigrant—from owning a fake ID “not to go to the club, but to go to her work,” to the suicide attempts of her sisters.
“I’m about to leave high school, and I’m not going to be able to go to college because my parents don’t have money to send me, and there’s no financial aid or scholarships for people like me,” she said. “So that was a time that was very devastating, and I have two sisters who were also going through that same depression, and they actually attempted to commit suicide because of the stress of being undocumented in this country.” Mental health struggles are common place among undocumented youths who fear deportation or separation from their families; these anxieties, in addition to lack of access to resources like financial aid and scholarships, could dramatically affect young immigrant students’ academic performances, or cut off their academic careers altogether. Ramirez-Herrera was no exception—but she isn’t giving up.
“I like to call us ‘do-ers,'” Ramirez-Herrera told the crowd, “and I actually apologize for calling you guys DREAMers, like that DREAMer, that DREAMer—they have names. We have names. We’re not dreamers. We’re out here doing things, and we need to continue inspiring.”
Steinem later walked audience members through a history of racism in immigration policy and a primer on the substantially lower rates of crime and higher rates of education among immigrants in America. Steinem stressed the power, importance and mobility of learning and education, and keeping it accessible. “I’m so happy to be on this campus, because community colleges are where I love to come speak the most,” she said. “They’re just so much more interesting than Harvard and Yale—you look more or less like the country.”
When the panel opened the floor for questions, one audience member asked how activists and marginalized people could stay committed to social justice and advocacy through the ceaseless chaos and injustice of the past year under Trump. Others asked about privilege and self-care and how allies to undocumented people can help. When the dialogue in the lecture hall eventually shifted to the #MeToo movement, and how the feminist movement has grown and changed since the 1970s, an audience member asked Steinem to compare her experiences at the early days of the women’s movement to the present.
“I think it’s different for everybody and I don’t want to answer for everybody,” Steinem said. “The beginning of the feminist movement was distinguished by women finally saying, ‘I’m not crazy, the system’s crazy,’ which is a huge gift because up until that time, women—diverse women—have been made to feel literally crazy if we weren’t content with a second-class status of derived identity. It was the beginning, that kind of excitement and discovery.”
“There were just all kinds of myths which are wrong,” Steinem added, “and now I suppose the biggest difference is that we are the majority.”