Erika Andiola puts her faith in the movement, not politicians. The 33-year-old, originally from the Mexican state of Durango, has seen elected officials leave her community behind too many times before.
Andiola, who lives in Phoenix, has been a leading immigrant rights activist for years. Today, she serves as chief advocacy officer for the San Antonio-based nonprofit RAICES Action, a pro-immigrant group that fights against family detention in Texas. Andiola also hosts RAICES’ new podcast.
Brought by her mom to Arizona in the late ’90s, Andiola grew up undocumented. Around 2009, with Barack Obama in office and promising immigration reforms, she threw herself into the so-called Dreamer movement—an emerging force of undocumented youth pushing for the legal right to live and work in the country they call home. Obama had promised change through Congress, either through a standalone DREAM Act for immigrant youth, or through “comprehensive immigration reform.” Congress and Obama failed on both counts. Meanwhile, the administration continued deporting migrants at a record pace.
But Andiola and her fellow Dreamers didn’t give up. They held sit-ins, attended meetings at the White House, and even heckled Obama during public speeches until the president finally approved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in June 2012. Since then, DACA has shielded some 700,000 young immigrants from deportation, including Andiola. Still, her troubles weren’t over: In 2013, immigration agents raided her home and arrested her mother and brother. Andiola successfully campaigned for their release, and she’s still helping her mom fight her deportation case today.
Andiola is sharply critical of Obama’s legacy on immigration. When the Democratic National Convention in August included a video about immigration narrated by Obama, Andiola called it “salt on the wound.” Nevertheless, she’s publicly supporting Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and now the Democratic presidential nominee, and she’s encouraging fellow progressives to do the same. The Observer spoke with her about social movements, empty promises, and a just international order.
Texas Observer: Under Trump, many Democrats seem to feel this deep nostalgia for the Obama years. But what did Obama’s presidency look like for the undocumented?
Erika Andiola: It depends who you ask. I think especially DACA recipients, a lot are thankful to Obama, but further than that, and within people active in the movement, we know he was absolutely wrong on immigration. Not only did he deport over three million people, basically a record number of deportations in [U.S.] history, he also created and built a deportation and detention machine—which was started by the Bush administration, but Obama reinforced it and created even more detention centers for individuals and families. And then, not by choice but because of the election, he handed over this huge machine to someone who now is using it in completely evil ways.
That’s the Obama I remember. Yes he did DACA, but I remember every single meeting we had with the White House as we were mobilizing and pressuring him to do this. That’s one piece of history a lot of people don’t know. A lot of people are erasing the contributions of the Dreamer movement, and assuming that Obama did it because he wanted to. He didn’t want to do DACA, but he ended up doing it because of the movement.
Tell me about that movement. How and when did it first find its voice?
It really started with a very specific goal which was the DREAM Act. The act never passed. But we figured out ways to pressure politicians and the administration. We would take deportation cases of undocumented youth and uplift them to the public, and that was pretty new. There were very few deportation defense campaigns that were very public, and that started changing a lot of the narrative. We were like, “There’s Pedro, who wants to join the military and has a baby”—these were narratives that the American public was not very aware of.
So you have people who are about to get deported, and the person who could stop that was Obama. There was this contrast between Obama saying he loved the Dreamers, and us having all of these [deportation] cases, so what we were able to do was work with professors and attorneys and incredible policy people who were able to help us shape what became DACA—which was really the kind of relief we had been winning in individual cases. That was the ask: Just like you’ve been doing with individual cases, we want you to do that with every single Dreamer. That was basically the theory of change, and that’s what started the movement to get what became DACA.
Agents of the Obama-Biden administration came into your house in 2013 and arrested your mother and brother. Having gone through that, how are you able to support Biden now?
In this case, what I’m really focused on is for us to defeat Donald Trump. I’m definitely a lot more left than Biden, but I prefer to have somebody in office that I can pressure rather than someone who blatantly is saying he wants us to be deported and is doing everything in his power, even if it’s illegal, to enact his agenda. I think it’s strategic for us, as people on the left, to pick somebody in office that we have leverage over, rather than someone who is going to ignore everything we’re pushing for.
The reality is my mom is still in her situation because of what happened under the Obama administration, and I’m never going to forget that. I am taking all that experience, and what we did to stop her deportation, to be able to learn from that and exist in a Biden administration where I can use that knowledge, and can build with other leaders in the movement to hold him accountable.
Do you have a message for, in particular, Bernie Sanders supporters who might be considering not voting for Biden?
At this point, all we can do is pick our opponent. I wish we would have gotten a different candidate, but this is the reality. I have been working on immigration under the Trump administration, and I can tell you it’s the worst nightmare. Under this administration it’s something new every week. I’d rather pick an opponent who’s easier to move through movement-building than an opponent who gives zero effs about our plight and anything we do.
The Biden platform is quite pro-immigrant: He supports restoring access to asylum and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented, for instance. Your organization is promoting a proposal called the Migrant Justice Platform. Are there things still missing from Biden’s platform?
The reason Biden’s platform is so much better than we could have imagined when he started running is because of Bernie and Elizabeth Warren and all these progressives. Now, are all those policies in fact what he is going to do? We heard the immigration reform promise from Obama and that didn’t happen, so what is going to be crucial for us is starting the pressure right away.
My biggest worry is that we do the same thing we did with the Obama administration, when we were just really excited to elect him; when he promised to pass immigration reform everybody kind of trusted that. And it didn’t happen. We have to learn from that. So, the Muslim Ban needs to be reversed. But if he does just that—and ends perhaps family detention or something that gives the perception that kids are no longer in cages—I wouldn’t want the American public to say he’s done everything he can on immigration and ignore that there’s so much more he can do.
You’ve lived the experience of immigration. You’ve spent more than a decade in the fight for immigrant rights. If you step back and think of the long-term world you’re fighting for, what does that look like?
The vision for me, and it’s reflected in the Migrant Justice Platform, is, first off, understanding that people migrate because they’re looking for home and safety. So if you think of it that way, there’s a lot to be done so that people don’t have to migrate, so that we’re not creating the circumstances for people to have to leave through our trade policies, climate change, or wars. We need to acknowledge that this country can do a lot of positive and stop doing the negative to push people out of their homes.
We also need to create a border that puts human rights rights first, which means we’re not treating people as non-human, as the other, and that we’re able to embrace the border as something positive where people can embrace each other. I would hope we can get to a point that Americans really see immigrants not as the other but as who we are as a country, and embrace us and see our humanity and all that we have to contribute to this country, and that our policies and our laws reflect that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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