Monterey County becomes focus for huge effort aimed at immigration reform.

Dream Team: Undocumented student Jorge Cruz, part of the local movement for immigration reform, dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer. But first he has to keep from getting deported. “I hope we can show our local government that they need to start pushing for us,” he says.

Community organizing is on a roll in Monterey County as advocates harness momentum created by the immigration debate. From the union halls of Salinas to the church halls of Greenfield, volunteers are banding together to help undocumented immigrants fight for new rights.

On Feb. 17, about 20 volunteers – from high school students to immigration attorneys – spent the morning helping young undocumented immigrants in Greenfield apply to stay in the U.S. 

Last August, a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) went into effect, allowing some undocumented immigrants to seek two-year reprieves from the threat of deportation. The program targets people who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthday.

On the Central Coast there are about 10,000 people, ages 15 to 30, eligible for deferred action, according to Paul Johnston, a community organizer and a sociologist at U.C. Santa Cruz who wrote a recent policy brief on the subject.

But of those, only about a tenth have applied, says Karen Mallory, deferred action coordinator at the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project. Some don’t know if they’re eligible, she says, while others don’t know where to apply.

“It’s especially a challenge to reach people in rural areas,” Mallory says. “It may be that many agricultural workers don’t know this is available.”

The Greenfield workshop took place in a small church hall. In five hours, about 40 young men and women picked up applications and sat down with the volunteers who helped them with the paperwork.

One teen who came in with his Spanish-speaking mother wanted to know if he could apply early. Johnston explained that he needed to wait until his birthday next month to apply, but should start collecting the documents he needs, like immunization records.

Another man was there with his girlfriend – a citizen – and their baby. They wanted to talk to volunteer attorneys about what options marriage might open.

This outreach group, a collection of volunteers from across the central coast, has performed five workshops since last September, helping about 275 people apply for deferred action. There have been similar outreach efforts by others, including one at Hartnell College last fall.

Johnston this month approached Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins with the idea to train school officials about deferred action so educators can direct students to places for help.

“I think it only benefits schools if [undocumented students] don’t have to live in fear of being deported, or if they can work with a work permit and be an integral part of the community,” Watkins says.

Now Johnston is in similar talks with Monterey County officials.

The DACA workshops may be just the tip of the organizing efforts. Local activists are working on a campaign that doesn’t just support existing policies like DACA, but to aims to create new ones. 

The county’s labor powers, including the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and the Salinas office of the United Farm Workers, started oiling up their organizing machines this month for a push toward “the magic number.”

That’s 279 votes: 60 congressional senators, 218 representatives, and one president needed to ensure immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship, says Arnulfo De La Cruz, California director of the national civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota. 

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Monterey County’s newest immigration reform group could be The Central Coast Coalition for a Pathway to Citizenship, a collection of community volunteers and labor leaders formed a few weeks ago. The coalition’s existence is due in part to the statewide organizing efforts of Mi Familia Vota.

Mi Familia Vota, which has ties to national groups like the Service Employees International Union and the United We Dream Network, has convened seven regional meetings with the goal of ramping up local support for immigration reform. When all the pieces are in place, the movement will have a formidable force to call on for efforts like rallies, marches and phone campaigns.

“It’s kind of like an earthquake,” Johnston says. “All of these tensions build up underground and when the movement comes – boom!”

At the Feb. 13 meeting of the Central Coast Coalition, activists were finalizing their game plan. They agreed on a resolution that will be introduced to city councils and community groups like churches.

It’s not just organizers stepping forward. Undocumented immigrants, many of them students who call themselves DREAMers (in reference to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), are coming out of the shadows as well.

Jorge Cruz, a 20-year-old who came to the U.S. when he was four, made an impassioned plea at the Wednesday meeting. The Hartnell student says his goal is to become a lawyer to “change some of the laws that aren’t fair.”

“I hope that this little group here tonight can work hard and finally push for something that has so long been out of our reach but is now closer than ever,” he says.

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