BY ISN STAFF | August 15, 2018
Editor’s Note: This summer, ISN spoke with José Cabrera, a 2018 graduate of Xavier University, about his immigration story, his work as an activist, and his experience as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient graduating from a Jesuit university.
Beginning in August of 2018, José will join NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice as an associate in Washington, D.C. José spoke at the 2017 Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Advocacy Day Public Witness.
If you were a dirt poor young man, with a family, living in Mexico, you most likely had been thinking for some time of immigrating to the U.S. to work. My father was one of those young men. He came to the U.S. when I was 6 months old with the hopes of finding a job so that he could send money back to buy land and cattle and start a profitable business that he could come home to and live happily ever after. It’s like our version of the American dream: the Mexican dream.
When I was four years old my father came back to Mexico and told my mom, “I want you and the boy to come to the U.S. so we can live a better life.”
My parents paid a coyote, someone who helps migrants cross the border, to make sure that I got to the United States while they crossed separately. After being detained and then lost in the desert, after four days, our family was reunited.
When we got to the U.S. my parents did everything they had to do to get me an education. The moment I was old enough they signed me up for kindergarten and I started my educational journey.
One day, my teacher requested a parent-teacher conference because she wanted my parents to get me tested—she believed I had a learning disability. My mom took me to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where I took multiple tests and after each test, I was told there was something wrong with me. I began to have multiple tutors and needed to have special accommodations. My parents really didn’t understand any of this, nor did I. We were from a small village in Veracruz, Mexico where they have one classroom and one teacher that teaches all of the elementary and middle school kids at once. My parents and I took in what the doctor said as: “he is stupid and he can’t learn.” Things weren’t going as planned, and my father wasn’t happy about. He started drinking a lot, then started doing drugs, he would get easily mad and hit my mom and I. This became a regular thing.
When I was eight years old he left my mom, my two U.S. born sisters Esther and Karina, and me. We haven’t seen him since. My mom was devastated and unprepared. You see, when my mom finished the 6th grade her father told her she wasn’t going back to school because she needed to devote her time to learn how to be a good housewife.
My mom didn’t know where and when to pay rent, she didn’t know where to get a job, and how to pay any of the bills. We eventually were homeless. We would spend the nights at friends’ houses until we overstayed our welcome. My mom would cook traditional Mexican food to sell and sold beauty products to make money to save up for our own place. After a year, she saved up enough money to put down the deposit for a small one bedroom apartment in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Cincinnati: Evanston.
Can you share how you first became involved with immigration activism?
If you’re not from Cincinnati or don’t know the Cincinnati neighborhoods, Evanston is one of the toughest neighborhoods. Growing up, we were accustomed to going to sleep hearing gunshots and sirens, and many of the other struggles that many Americans who live in rough neighborhoods have to struggle with. My mom started to notice the struggles that people were facing in these neighborhoods, particularly undocumented folks. She started talking to her friend, Don Sherman, who is an activist, about immigration, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. She helped Don start the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, which assists workers, including undocumented workers, who are often denied pay or are forced to work overtime without pay because of their status, which their employers use as leverage. While my mother was involved with this work, Don tricked me into sharing my immigration story when I was a teenager. I have been sharing my story ever since, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
You have served as the immigrant program coordinator for the YES program at the Cincinnati Interfaith Peace and Justice Center. Can you tell us more about your work there?
YES is a group of high school and college students who want to do something to better the situation of the eleven million undocumented folks in this country, and want to educate their communities about our outdated immigration system. Many of our meetings consist of training members to share their stories, education around the current political climate, training for lobbying and community organizing…anything that an activist needs to know to push the movement further.
This past year we enrolled 50 active members from universities and high schools across the city. We make up a very diverse community—we have undocumented members, DACA recipients, refugees, members who are U.S. citizens and have undocumented relatives, or relatives who received legal status from the last immigration reform in the 1980s. And then we have members who are just passionate about the issue and who have friends or significant others who are facing these struggles and really want to get out there and put their bodies on the line for this issue.
In September, when DACA was rescinded, about 250 of us organized and rallied outside of Senator Portman’s office. Later in October, we planned a second rally, attended by about 150 people, where we gave midterm report cards to all of the Ohio and Kentucky senators and representatives on how they’ve represented us and how they’ve been treating immigration issues in D.C.
How has your work with the YES program influenced your post-college professional plans?
My whole life, I’ve always said that activism is a phase, that once I finished college I was going to go to the corporate world to make money and live a comfortable life, and just say “yeah, I did that once.” But this work also changed a lot because of the Trump Administration—having to lead 50 active members when they’re all afraid for their lives, for their families’ lives, afraid of their families being separated. In December, there were quite a few ICE raids in northern Kentucky, and some of our members’ relatives were picked up.
People are afraid, and they feel that being politically active now is the worst thing you could do, especially considering where they come from—countries they were escaping because some of their relatives were politically active and were being gunned down. You have to develop a really tough skin. You have to control your emotions. The adrenaline rush I get from doing all of this is so addictive. I found myself entering my senior year during Trump’s first year, and thought, “I can’t see myself not doing this work, can’t see myself sitting on the sidelines and just watching it all go down.” I want to continue fighting for what I believe is right, fighting for the betterment of our country, especially for those who are brown, who are undocumented, who have a very different view of the country, especially at this time. So, it was because of YES and doing this work that I found that I can’t see myself not being politically active.
You will be spending your next year at NETWORK Lobby as an associate. How do you think your work with YES ties into the work that you’ll be doing and your decision to take this position?
A friend who graduated last year from Xavier told me about the opportunity at NETWORK. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after college, but I knew I wanted to do something in another city. Around that same time in December, during the government shutdowns, United We Dream put out their own tent and took over the National Mall and organized.
Every day there were folks doing sit-ins in their Representative or Senator’s office. They shut down the underground tunnel that connects the offices on Capitol Hill, and people were getting arrested left and right. I remember sitting down in Gallagher Student Center at Xavier University and trying to study for exams, but I found myself watching the live stream through Facebook for United We Dream, and crying because I felt like I was here and I wasn’t there. I’ve always known that D.C. is the place to go if you want to do big things—where the action really is. That’s when I considered NETWORK more seriously.
Can you speak about your experience as a DACA recipient as a student at Xavier University? How you seen Xavier and other Jesuit universities supporting students who are undocumented, DACA recipients, etc.? Where do you see room for continued growth?
Last summer, in Cleveland for the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Ignatian Justice Summit, I learned what other Jesuit universities are doing, like Loyola University Chicago’s Magis Scholarship.
I learned that some Jesuit schools have a center [for undocumented students], scholarship programs, and some form of an “UndocuWeek.” During the Summit, I thought about how Xavier could do some similar work.
As far as I know, there are only two or three DACA recipients attending Xavier—so in a way Xavier [and other schools like this] couldn’t really do a lot, didn’t need as much of the support work that Loyola University Chicago, for example, has done because their population of undocumented youth and DACA recipients is so much bigger.
One of the big things that Xavier has been trying to do is to bring more awareness and more education to its students about the issue. There can always be continued growth and education because immigration is complex. It touches and affects almost every issue differently in its own special way.
As universities whose motto is “men and women for others,” it is hard to be “for others” when you don’t understand what they are going through and you don’t understand how complex an issue is. It is not as simple as just being undocumented—all undocumented folks have the different struggles.
Xavier University helped me understand more of what social justice is, how that looks, how you can take your passion and your skills to better help other people, and how you can fit into the whole social justice realm. I think the most important thing from my Xavier education is an understanding how all of these social justice issues are connected—the idea of Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “no one’s free until we’re all free,” really helped me understand my activism, where I belong, and what I am trying to fight for.
How is the uncertainty surrounding DACA and immigration legislation and policy affecting you as you graduate from college? How do you seeing that playing out with your peers?
My perspective and understanding and how I deal with this is different from how some other undocumented and DACA recipient peers deal with it. I see it as: my status is a status. It is going to change. I don’t allow my status to limit me and what I can do, and how much I can achieve in this country.
That being said, I also understand that it’s a lot harder when you’re undocumented versus when you’re a DACA recipient. My generation has, in a way, been sheltered by our college experience because we had DACA. We were more secure, we didn’t have to fear being deported. We had jobs—a lot of times we had a very good and stable job. We can continue to work and contribute after we graduate. We also have more opportunities for scholarships that make it financially viable for us to attend a university. This was weight taken off our backs. We’ve been able to be privileged in that way, versus the older generations. They attended college undocumented, had to work in very low-skilled jobs that didn’t pay as well because they didn’t have a social security number. They had to pay more out of pocket because there weren’t many scholarships available for them. And they, everyday, lived in fear of being deported. The fear of our parents being deported has always been there—to this day it hasn’t gone away. But at least we know we’re more protected. Now, since the 2016 election, that feeling has changed and shaken. How the country is trying to deal with racism and with immigration has changed.
Our reality has been shaken. We are also trying to take care of ourselves, which a lot of immigrant children who are going to college don’t really know how to do. Our families have enforced intense and unhealthy work habits. We’re starting to realize that, with these crazy work habits and trying to stay sane with an administration who’s actively working against us, we have to ask: “how do you stay sane, how do you stay focused on your goals and stay focused on the real prize?” This, for all of us, should be comprehensive immigration reform for the eleven million who are undocumented in the U.S., not just trying to save DACA or getting the Dream Act passed.
Earlier this year, you wrote a post for ISN’s Lenten series about getting to know immigrant members of one’s community. How can those of us without a personal immigration story support you as an immigrant, but also as a peer, colleague, friend, etc.?
Education. Educating oneself about the issue and about the struggle. Being educated and getting the true facts is one of the most important things you can do, as well as constantly calling your representatives and when they’re up for reelection bringing up their past history of how they treated immigration issues in D.C.
When it comes to walking with immigrants in your community, say “hey, let’s get coffee.” Don’t even bring up immigration. Have conversations that you would have with your friends. Probably some of you and your friends have conversations about politics but you also talk about movies that came out, other friends, or something exciting that brings back the humanity in someone—try to befriend them. Once that happens, I’ve actually seen that you really, truly get to step into that person’s shoes. You get to understand their world, and it’s a lot easier for them to open up.
[Julia Murphy, Saint Louis University class of 2019 and ISN summer intern, contributed to the production of this story.]