Immigrating to the United States from Ecuador when she was 10 years old, Maria Sotomayor quickly realized immigrants to the U.S. faced an entirely different world than she expected.
“My parents had lived here before that, and I had expected them to have a really big house and a nice job and all the things you need to get by without having to worry about anything,” said Sotomayor, who now works as the deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. The organization, which Sotomayor has been involved with since 2012, does grassroots advocacy work for immigrants, migrants and refugees throughout the state.
When her parents tried to register her for school, she didn’t have legal status yet. Sotomayor was denied access to K-12 education and the public school threatened to report her family to immigration services.
“There are laws that say no matter your immigration status, religious background, you shouldn’t be denied access to education,” Sotomayor said. “We didn’t know that we had any rights.”
She had a difficult time finding a college who would accept her without documentation and was too scared to ask college recruiters if the would accept undocumented students when they visited her high school. A former DACA recipient, Sotomayor ended up studying at Neumann University where she hosted panels on issues for undocumented immigrants and met people who introduced her to the world of organizing.
Sotomayor now leads PICC’s youth organizing project which aims to help immigrant and refugee youth’s voices be heard.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about the Youth Organizing project and how PICC started it?
We have been doing our Youth Organizing project since 2015. We realized that with DACA we had all those young people who were coming into our organization asking for services. Young people kept calling us saying, “I want to go to college but I’m undocumented. How can I do that? Can I even go to school?” Or things around access to driver’s licenses, access to healthcare. We realized we needed to be able to provide a space for young people not just for them to come in and say, “Hey this is what we need,” but to have a voice about what we are doing within the organization.
Back in 2014, a group of us had conversations at PICC’s statewide convening, which is a large gathering of immigrants and refugees and allies to talk about strategy and workshops where people get to know each other. At this event we decided to have a youth workshop. It can be a little intimidating to have a space just for all these adults. A bunch of the older youth were talking and were like, “Let’s make a space that we needed when we were younger.” We began our first statewide summer leadership program. This will be our fourth year.
How has it grown over the years?
It’s really cool to see how it’s evolved because every year we get people who have attended from the beginning until now or new people have heard about the event. Immigrant youth, refugee youth or children of immigrants are constantly facing a lot of uncertainty about their family members or the experiences they had back home. If you’re in school you don’t have space to talk about that, even with your friends – unless you’re always with people who identify the same way and can relate to the experiences. We wanted young people to feel like they can open up and don’t have to explain their experiences. They can feel safe and they also get to learn about how to be their own advocates and how to get involved with immigrant rights.
What are some of the issues the youth seem most passionate about?
Some of the issues we talked about for this year specifically are issues around mental health and wellness, knowing your rights, immigration and the police, teaching those rights to their family members and community members and involving schools in thinking about how we support families and students. This year we’re going to play around a little bit with content creation, so being your own creator in terms of your stories and narratives and using social media outlets to tell your story. We’re also talking a lot about incarceration, especially around family detention.
Can any youth join this program?
It’s open to anyone ages 14-25. Any youth that identifies as an immigrant or refugee or child of immigrants and refugees can join the program.
What are the main skills you hope this program might help the youth develop?
It’s really important to develop our leaders so anywhere across the state they know where to find support. We provide them with lists of organizations where they can find support for these programs. We’ll support [them] to start a youth committee locally and get more involved with community education, getting involved in campaigns. It’s up to them to decide which areas of the work PICC is doing to get involved with. Or, we help them identify issues in their community so they can move them forward to create a change.
How will these skills help them adjust and fit in with their peers here?
A lot of the skills that they are learning are skills they can take into school or they can take into jobs. For example, one of the big parts of our convening is all of the participants have to help with the fundraising. That’s a skill I feel is really important because you’re always going to utilize that. We want to keep this community 100 percent youth-led, which means we don’t have attachments to any specific grants because we’re coming up with the money. We get to develop exactly what we need. They get to practice a lot of public speaking. We do a lot of role-playing and learning about the material, and that’s something they take with them.
What is the most fulfilling part watching them go through this program?
Being able to provide that space for them and them being able to find the family or friends they need. You normally have your family members and your friends you choose from school and your neighborhood, but your organizing family is such a strong bond you have. You’re all fighting for the same thing. You’re learning from each other. For them to just feel connected and to realize they’re not alone.
-Text and photo by Laura Smythe.