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Youth Leadership Series: Undocuqueer Youth Stand Up

By Joe Rihn


From Immigrant Youth Coalition’s (IYC) inception, co-founder Jonathan Perez knew his organization needed to be different from other groups providing immigration resources.  Most of IYC’s leaders are undocumented and queer, or undocuqueer, and that perspective informs IYC’s approach to activism.   Jonathan says IYC made a conscious decision to move away from organizing around the Dream Act, and to focus instead on ending “the criminalization of undocumented and queer people of color.”  Through bold protests and powerful organizing tactics, young IYC members have shown their dedication to stopping deportation.  According to Jonathan “They’re willing to risk their deportation in order to change the system.”

Jonathan came to the United States from Columbia at the age of four.  While his father was able to enter the country legally, the rest of the family, including four older siblings, had to apply for political asylum; a request that is still processing today.  “Our paths were a lot different than my dad’s,” he says, “At a young age I started to see how the system worked.”

Being undocumented caused a major turning point in Jonathan’s life when he learned that his older brother’s immigration status made it impossible to attend college.  When Jonathan realized he would face the same roadblock he “gave up,” nearly dropping out of high school.

However something changed when Jonathan attended a workshop led by InnerCity Struggle (ICS).  “I remember the workshop being about colonization and the real history of the United States,” he said.  Soon Jonathan became involved with ICS’s United Students Club, a program that facilitates student organizing.  There he became “focused on changing the conditions” at his school.  Jonathan went on to join the staff at ICS, but eventually decided that he needed to focus his activism where queer and undocumented issues intersect.  In response he founded Immigrant Youth Coalition in 2012.


IYC has since made a strong impact in the lives of many undocumented immigrants in California.  In 2014 the Immigrant Youth Coalition’s grassroots campaigns helped prevent more than thirty people from being deported.  With the executive order on immigration projected to take effect in February, IYC is working to make sure community members are informed about “criminal and immigration policies that might impact them.”  The organization hosts regular informational forums where anywhere between fifty and two-hundred people attend.

The organizers hope these gatherings will allow them to, “engage with the five million people who qualify for the executive order,” Jonathan said.  However he stresses that the group is also working to connect with people excluded from the executive order because of felonies, who might now be able to qualify due to Prop 47’s reclassification of certain crimes.  Educating undocumented people about U visas for victims of crimes, and T visas for victims of human trafficking, is part of these outreach efforts as well.

In addition to providing information, IYC uses these forums to connect community members with other critical services.  From helping young people apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) with assistance from onsite attorneys, to preparing undocumented immigrants for driving tests, Jonathan emphasizes the need for services to be “comprehensive and culturally sensitive.”  According to Jonathan, the organization also runs  deportation defense workshops and fully supports with encouragement to attend expungement clinics run by the YJC.  Jonathan puts it, “Immigration and the criminal justice system have been meshed together.”  Of the people who attend the workshops he said, “In a small way they’re coming out of the shadows.”

According to Jonathan, the organization is looking to expand its work on another youth related issue.  “We’re looking to invest more resources and time in challenging gang injunctions,” said Jonathan, calling gang injunctions “a legal form of racial profiling.”  He points to the connection between increased policing and gentrification that frequently accompany gang injunctions, and lead to displacement.  When undocumented youth enter into the criminal justice system through gang injunctions, that form of displacement is often deportation.

When speaking about criminalization of communities of color, Jonathan points out how IYC’s work is closely related to #BlackLivesMatter as well.  “We’re fighting the same system,” Jonathan said, identifying the end of the for-profit prison industry as a common goal.  “Our movement is not only about immigrant rights, it’s about human rights through the experience of undocumented people.”

Undocumented and Queer Youth Stand Up, one in a series of profiles: Young Organizers at liberty

  • When a chain of events point to a conclusion that Black lives simply don’t matter to some, it’s time to fight.    
  • When some schools and classrooms are focused on pushing youth through a system that should be preparing them for college, but instead is grooming them for a prison cell, it’s clear the time to fight is now. 
  • When there are systematic structures in place that are tearing families apart it’s clear that the time to fight is now.
  • When LGBTQ youth, who are abandoned by their families, are pushed into the juvenile system at alarming rates, the time to fight is now — and young people of color are rising to the challenge at every turn.

Some of the most noteworthy social justice activism is happening right now, and leading the movements in racial and gender discrimination and immigration are young people of color.  Liberty Hill’s social justice partners in youth leadership have declared Los Angeles as ground zero in the fight for equality and justice with OccupyLAPD, #BlackLivesMatter, the fight against youth and family deportation with the ‘Not One More’ movement and more.

Youth Justice Coalition, Community Coalition, Innercity Struggle,Immigrant Youth Coalition, Gay-Straight Alliance Network and the Khmer Girls in Action are just some of the organizations with an investment in youth leadership that have been making strides and are fighting on the frontlines in some of the most dire situations facing youth of color today.