“I’d like to ask you to introduce yourselves. Tell us something you wish the world knew about you.” Adriana Zavala, professor in the Department of Art and Art History, said as she turned to the three guest panelists sitting in the armchairs to her left.
The event, “Immigrant Entrepreneurship – A Conversation,” which took place on February 3, was organized by the Tufts Latino Center in light of the upcoming DACA decision. DACA was established in 2012 by the Obama administration and allowed undocumented immigrants who are minors to receive a renewable two-year deferred action from deportation, as well as a work-permit. In September 2017, Trump rescinded DACA and is now planning to revise immigration laws in order to end “chain-migration,” which is the visa sponsorship of family members by existing visa holders. This coming week, more proposals aimed at replacing DACA will be presented in the senate. But if the government does not agree on a new policy and pass it, young people formerly protected under DACA could be at risk of deportation, and many will immediately lose the provisions under DACA that allowed them things such as licenses, health care, and educational financial aid. Some of those who would be affected are part of the Tufts community.
The Latino Center’s goal for the event was to prove that even without DACA, undocumented immigrants can still survive and thrive. The guest panelists were all undocumented immigrants who grew up without DACA. Through entrepreneurship, they forged their own paths to success.
Neo Sandja, one of the panelists, introduced himself by saying, “Hello, my name is Neo Sandja. I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am African, I am Black, I am a vegetarian, I am transgender.” Sandja initially came to the US on a student visa. However, after coming out as transgender to his father, his family revoked their financial support. He was unable to cover the costs of his education and was forced to drop out, causing him to lose his student visa and, therefore, become undocumented. Fortunately, he still had a temporary social security number, and was able to find work. He set aside a portion of his income to start hormone therapy, but this caused him to rapidly gain weight. He began going to the gym regularly and later started a blog about his transition and his fitness goals. Soon, he had garnered an online following of other trans men interested in his story.
Sandja thinks about entrepreneurship as a way to help communities, saying, “At first entrepreneurship was just about surviving for me, surviving and making money. But what’s going to take you out of [that mindset] is remembering it’s not about you. It’s about a service that people need.” Soon after his blog took off, Sandja founded his own company dedicated to empowering the trans community in all aspects of their lives called FTM Fitness World. He also organized the first bodybuilding competition for trans men.
For New Latthivongskorn, entrepreneurship was also a way in which he found success as an undocumented immigrant. Latthivongskorn emigrated from Thailand to the US with his parents when he was nine years old on a tourist visa. As a child and teenager, he spent his summers and weekends working for his parents in their Thai restaurant. He would always ask his parents what he could do to help them, and “they would say ‘do your job,’ which was to focus on education; they thought education was the key to success.” But for Latthivongskorn, it wasn’t that simple. He said, “being undocumented, one of the things you find out fairly quickly that just doing well in classes won’t always get you to where you want to go.”
Latthivongskorn was overjoyed when he received a nearly full scholarship to UC Davis. But two months before he was due to start school, reached out to him and inquired about his status, “and I told them that I didn’t have a green card, and that I was undocumented, and they said ‘Sorry, you can’t have this scholarship, tell us when your status changes.” In the end, Latthivongskorn attended UC Berkeley, which also did not offer him any financial aid because of his undocumented status. He paid for school by holding a part-time job at a restaurant near campus and eventually, he was awarded a scholarship through E4FC, Educators for Fair Consideration, a nonprofit that supports immigrant students. After graduating, he went onto became the first undocumented medical student at UC San Francisco and is now working towards a master’s in public health at Harvard, where he is a part of the Undocumented Student Support effort.
The other panelist, Illiana Perez, has also devoted her work to help undocumented people succeed. Perez received both her bachelor’s and master’s degree in California and is currently completing a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Evaluation and Reform at Claremont Graduate School. In 2012, Perez published “Life After College: A Guide for Undocumented Students,” a free online guide about finding employment after college as an undocumented person. “I’ve come up with a term for my trajectory,” Perez said in the panel discussion, “I call it the UndocuHustle—I think that as undocumented individuals, the path was never the same as anybody [else].” Perez currently works at Immigrants Rising where she encourages immigrants to thrive as entrepreneurs, regardless of their legal status. Perez said, “We [have] to bring back the idea that individuals can still do so much, even without work authorization. Because even if we do get the clean Dream act, even if we do get immigration reform, immigration is so complex that one policy won’t fit the whole picture, and individuals will always get left out.”
Mariana, an event attendee from Medford High School who emigrated from Brazil to the US almost three years ago, connected with Perez’s message about the importance of recognizing the solidarity between undocumented immigrants, saying, “I feel like this. I feel like I’ve found people like me who aren’t documented, and it feels really warm to know people like me here.” Ana Manriquez, a Tufts student and intern at the Latino Center, mused, “I think more events like this that are intentionally for undocumented students and also address the other intersections that come with being undocumented should be organized on campus.”
Jesus Ramirez, a sophomore at Tufts who attended the event, said, “It was fascinating to me to see that their initiatives helped others, other people who are also navigating their predicaments…It’s amazing how this community is able to thrive.” Ramirez hopes that events like this continue to happen on campus, creating an environment where immigrants are supported and inspired to be hopeful about the future. He explained, “With the greater oppression will come a greater resistance.”