This is a series created and published by Generation Progress to highlight the young and diverse individuals who are dedicated to fighting for the rights and safety of immigrant communities throughout the U.S., and to share their perspectives on ways in which young people can be powerful forces for change. The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interview subjects. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Generation Progress.
Many young immigrants feel called to political action as a way for them to fight for laws and policies that will empower and celebrate their communities. Sarah Souza answered that call—today, she focuses on ensuring that immigrant communities have a voice in their government and are able to control their own destinies. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, has a right to make decisions about their health, family, and future with dignity and self-determination.
Sarah and her family came to the U.S. from Brazil when she was a teenager, and she spent the remainder of her childhood undocumented in California. Having spent over a decade of organizing for immigrant communities, Sarah—now a Dreamer*—has become a fierce leader at the forefront of social justice issues both at the local level in San Francisco and at the state level, where she fights for systemic changes on issues including housing, immigration, economic justice, and public education. She has also joined other Latinx leaders in meeting with members of Congress to advocate for humane and inclusive immigration reform.
Sarah’s notable accomplishments include her trailblazing work as the first Dreamer to lead state and local political organizations. Through her leadership in those organizations, she has pushed for legislation focusing on empowering Dreamers, TPS, and green card holders to run for CA State Delegate positions and Central County Committees. Through her advocacy, Sarah has built momentum for state-wide reforms that will advance immigrants’ representation in government and enact policy to serve community needs.
Currently, Sarah is leading the Coalition San Francisco Commissions for All and working at a community based organization connecting immigrant families to essential resources during this pandemic. In the coming months and years, she sees an opportunity to redefine the narrative of the immigrant movement by breaking barriers and opening doors for political leadership.
We talked with Sarah to learn more about why she is in the fight and what YOU can do to be a part of it. Check out her Q&A below:
When did you get involved in the immigrants’ rights movement, and why did you decide to go into the kind of work you are doing now?
I immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 15 from Brazil. When I first came to the U.S., I had no idea what my experience would be living as an undocumented immigrant—I attended high school and college before DACA* was introduced by the Obama administration. As a young girl, I had to figure out how to succeed in school and thrive as a human being in the face of real challenges that resulted from my immigration status. I always had the hope that one day I would be able to make my mom’s American Dream a reality, which was to have the opportunity to get a college degree and a better life.
As an immigrant raised by a single mother, I had to overcome many barriers such as bullying in school and discrimination, as well as face the persistent and harmful reality that I had to be perfect in order for some people to believe that I deserve to live in this country. As an undocumented student in high school, I had to deal with hostile situations simply because I am an immigrant. My experience as an immigrant is what gave me the ability to become a resilient leader and inspired me to use my story as a tool for social change on issues such as immigrant rights, labor, and economic justice. My personal life experience shaped my commitment to focus on systemic change and humanize the face of immigrants in the U.S.
What is particularly important about the work you’re doing at your organization / in your personal capacity to advocate for immigrant communities? How does it reflect your values as a young person trying to affect change in immigration policy? What are you working on right now that the media is — or should be — paying attention to?
I am currently working on the Covid-19 San Francisco Latino Task force project which is designed to connect immigrant families to essential resources such as food, housing, and health tools. As an immigrant leader, I am leading a state-wide effort to build awareness on intersectional issues affecting the immigrant community and people of color in California. Often, immigrant issues are talked about as a separate issue, but it is crucial to fight against the criminalization of immigrants. I am working towards reclaiming our value as human beings. The work I am doing in California is inspiring legislators and community leaders to promote more inclusive systemic changes to address discrimination.
I am also leading efforts to address financial barriers in the immigrant community, such as income inequality. As a Dreamer activist, my priority is to leverage my work and leadership opportunities to humanize the immigrant narrative. Immigrants come to this country with dreams and hope to live a better life; we are American in every way. Regardless of status, immigrants contribute economically and culturally to this country and bring diversity. Overall, the media should be more proactive in denouncing the current narrative and marginalization of immigrant families. As Americans, we should condemn racism and oppressive systems.
What kind of future for immigrant communities are you working towards? How do you think the movement will help create a better future for immigrant communities?
As an immigrant leader, I am working towards a more inclusive and equitable future for immigrants in California and across the country. I am taking the lead to advocate for more humane immigration reform. We must not forget the kids that are still held in cages—immigrant families are suffering. The immigrant movement should focus on shaping more inclusive solutions: I want a future where we can thrive as a community. This movement will lead to societal transformational changes focused on social justice for immigrants and people of color. As a Latina and Dreamer Activist, I am fighting for systemic changes that will create a better future for immigrant communities. Overall, I envision a future where immigrants can live without the fear and anxiety of being deported or losing a loved one.
Why should young adults, especially those who aren’t directly impacted by current immigration policies, get involved in the kind of work you are doing or with immigration causes more broadly?
Young adults should get involved in the immigrant rights movement because it is an American issue. Immigrant families across the country sacrificed their lives to immigrate to this country, escaping oppressive systems in search of opportunities. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in fear due to their status. The current administration has generated a lot of anxiety due to the constant attacks on our communities.
Our constitutional rights must be protected, and as young leaders, we have a moral responsibility to fight for civil rights and justice.
As an immigrant, how do you hope to see allies demonstrate their support? / As an ally advocating for immigrants, how do you demonstrate your solidarity with immigrants at this time in our country?
As an immigrant, I hope to see allies demonstrate their support by fighting against the concept of legality and criminalization. Immigrants should not be labeled as legal or illegal; we are human beings, and we are enough regardless of status. Organize in your community to push for humane immigration reform, and share your stories as to why it is important to fight for immigrant rights and dismantling oppressive systems. Also, allies should promote the stories of immigrants that depict their strength as human beings and their contributions to this country. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We must fight for immigrant rights because it is our moral duty.
Dreamer – Sometimes written as “DREAMers”; refers to those individuals who were brought to the U.S. at an early age and, while lacking a legal immigration status and rights of citizenship, have grown-up and lived in the country nearly their entire lives. The term’s origins come from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was introduced in 2001 to provide these young immigrants with a pathway to permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship.
DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created in the Obama administration era to protect young immigrants who entered the U.S. at a young age from the risk of being deported. The program also gives recipients a chance to work and go to school in the U.S.