Juan Escalante is not yet 30, but he’s already a decade-long veteran in the fight for immigrant rights. It was a movement he found himself thrust into at just 17, when he began applying to colleges in his home state of Florida and found out that he was undocumented because an unscrupulous lawyer had screwed up his family’s paperwork. Having come from Venezuela to the United States on a valid work visa, Escalante, his two brothers, and parents were suddenly left out in the cold.
“We got into a so-called ‘line,’” Escalante told ThinkProgress in 2014. “A lot of people jump to the conclusion that my parents were at fault. My parents had no fault in getting me where I am. The immigration system is broken.” The fear of deportation understandably forces many immigrant families into the shadows to live, work, and above all else, be invisible as a form of self-preservation. But Escalante didn’t just step forward out of the shadows: he spoke out.
By 2009, two years after he found out about his status, Escalante had both traveled to Washington to advocate for an incarnation of the DREAM Act and enrolled at Florida State University, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and then a master’s in public administration. At FSU, he was elected to the Student Senate and advocated for pro-immigrant policies to help others. But it was an action from Barack Obama in 2012—the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—that helped him.
For Escalante, DACA didn’t just mean a chance to work legally and protection from deportation. It meant a chance to continue thriving, eventually landing his dream job as director of digital campaigns for America’s Voice, a D.C.-based immigration reform advocacy group. Around 800,000 young immigrants enrolled in the program before the Trump administration announced its rescission last September, a decision that has now left Escalante and program recipients in limbo.
“Am I worried? A bit, but then again who wouldn't be when the threat of deportation hangs over their head,” Escalante told Daily Kos this past week, the six-month mark that Congress was given to act on permanent protections. They haven’t. “That is why I continue to advocate, because I refuse to sit by as this administration threatens and destroys the livelihood of millions of hard-working immigrants.”
Like so many other immigrant youth, Escalante is relentless, using his America’s Voice role and influence on Twitter—he has nearly 18,000 followers—to shine a light on attacks against immigrants. When Saturday Night Live announced Trump would be hosting a 2015 episode just months after calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” Escalante and his group sprung into action, collecting over half a million petition signatures calling on the show to rescind the invitation. Escalante delivered them by hand in New York City, surrounded by a frenzy of cameras and flashes.
In the end, SNL producers refused to budge, but the damage in credibility had already been done. Taran Killam, a former cast member, later called Trump’s appearance “embarrassing and shameful.” But more importantly, as many mainstream media still hesitated in calling Trump’s outright racist remarks “racist,” immigrant rights leaders like Escalante had been planting the seeds of resistance to Trumpism. “I’ve said before,” Escalante remarked at the time, “we will continue to call out anyone who is willing to normalize Trump’s hateful rhetoric.”
Today, Escalante’s activism has moved far beyond SNL. Following Trump’s DACA announcement last year, Escalante has in a sense returned to how it all began, becoming a leading advocate in the fight to pass the DREAM Act. But while Congress is in as much of a standstill in 2018 as it was in 2009, the American public has evolved in truly historic numbers. Today, nearly 90 percent want undocumented immigrant youth to stay. When Republicans control the House, Senate, and executive branch, Escalante lays the blame for inaction squarely where it belongs.
“You have poll after poll showing that the American people, actual voters from both political parties, want to see Dreamers protected from deportation and allowed to state in the United States,” he told Daily Kos. “What does Congress do? Create an impossible path to navigate, full of grandstanding and blockades for sensible DACA legislation, while simultaneously claiming that they intend to help Dreamers like me. The way I see it, Republicans broke the DACA program, and now they are unwilling to fix it.”
Recent injunctions from courts in California and New York have resurrected portions of DACA, but new applicants are still barred from enrolling. Even immigrant youth who are being allowed to re-apply and extend their work permits could become vulnerable to ICE arrest while waiting for their applications to be approved and processed. “Dreamers are currently able to renew their DACA benefits, which is excellent,” he continued, “but a renewal notice will not protect them from deportation.”
DACA recipients have already been targeted by Trump’s racist mass deportation force, facing “arrest and detention after speaking against ICE agents at press conferences as their DACA renewals were being processed,” Escalante reported in his Huffington Post column this month, another role he has put on his plate. “ICE has recently gone after several prominent immigration activists, sparking a debate on whether the agency is actively retaliating against some of its biggest critics and opponents.”
Still, Escalante is refusing to back down to intimidation, not only urging immigrant rights advocates to keep up the pressure on federal legislators, but to also support local, pro-immigrant policies while keeping an eye to electoral change in November. Among state house seats, Democrats have already flipped dozens of once-red seats since Trump’s election. If Congress is unwilling to change the laws to help young Americans-in-waiting like Escalante, then it’s time to change Congress.
“My message to the president and Republican leaders in Congress is simple: you broke it, you fix it,” Escalante said. “We have no time for pointing fingers or issuing criticisms about failures from previous administrations. We are here, this is now, and Dreamers are counting on real leadership that doesn't use their lives and talents as the ransom.”