This summer camp just churned out 80 activists

Growing up in wealthy Marin County, Yaqueline Rodas didn't know many people like herself: a young immigrant from Guatemala in the country without legal status. She knew even fewer political activists.

So it was with amazement and a little anxiety that she found herself standing one morning in June in a circle with 82 strangers, each of whom had also been brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, and each of whom was now officially an activist-in-training.

It was the first day of Dream Summer, an annual program that brings young immigrants from across the country to Los Angeles for a 10-week crash course designed to produce the next generation of immigrant rights leaders.

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As the students sipped coffee and exchanged shy introductions in a meeting room in the basement of a Koreatown church, Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, which organized the program, explained the objective.

"It is to build a powerful social justice movement that will transform this country," Wong said. He cracked a smile: "No pressure."

Dream Summer, which concluded its fifth year Thursday with a graduation ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, has already changed the immigrant rights movement. Its alumni include many leading "Dreamer" advocates, including several who led the push for President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (DACA, as it is known, granted temporary deportation protection to more than half a million young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.)

The program includes two weeks of workshops in Los Angeles on topics as varied as public speaking, the immigrant detention system and the history of the NAACP. Participants also spend eight weeks in internships at social justice organizations around the country.

The idea is for them to learn what has worked for other social movements. But the program's biggest value, those involved say, may be the connections forged by young immigrants from different regions with similar backgrounds, similar frustrations and similar dreams.

"Look around the room," Wong urged the students that first day in June. "Now you're a part of a whole network, a whole community."

Rodas, who applied for the program on a whim after a classmate at UC Santa Barbara recommended it, said the summer had changed her sense of place in the world.

It helped her realize that there were others like her who had experienced discrimination, and who also were bothered by their parents' struggle to find well-paying work. And it helped her find a purpose.

"Now I know I want to do something to help my community," said Rodas, who spent the summer helping immigrants without legal status sign up for health insurance.

Chando Kem, 21, spent the first few days of the program commuting from his home in Long Beach. But soon he was spending nights on the floor of the hotel rooms of the out-of-town participants to maximize the time with his new colleagues.

During his internship, at the Filipino Migrant Center in Long Beach, Kem was asked to produce video testimonials featuring immigrants who had experienced wage theft. During the process, he realized that he should interview his own father for the film.

When his family arrived from Cambodia, when Kem was 7, his dad worked at a Chinese restaurant where he was underpaid and denied proper lunch breaks, Kem said. "Before I thought, 'OK, this is the way things are,'" he said. "Now it's like no, that's wrong."

The organizers of Dream Summer say it was born out of failure and frustration.

They started the program in 2011 after Congress failed to pass the federal Dream Act, which would have given people who came to the United States before the age of 16 a pathway to citizenship. Opponents said it would have rewarded immigrants who broke the law.

That year, several of the program's young participants were placed with campaigns working on behalf of the California Dream Act. It passed later that year, allowing youth to apply for state financial aid at universities.

Other Dream Summer alumni would go on to lead efforts against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for controversial policies targeting immigrants in the country illegally, and to take on Obama's deportation record. One graduate, Lorella Praeli, is now Latino outreach director for Democratic hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.

The program is not only for new activists.

At 33, Paulo Jara-Riveros was one of the oldest participants this summer. Brought to the U.S. from Peru at age 15, he returned to Peru to pursue his studies in 2011.

Two years later, Jara-Riveros was a part of a major protest in which two dozen young people with long ties to the U.S. surrendered to federal authorities at the Texas-Mexico border to protest American immigration policies. Jara-Riveros, a transgender man who says he faced discrimination in Peru, has applied for asylum and is waiting for a ruling in his case.

This summer he worked for a health organization that serves transgender immigrants. The experience was emotionally trying, he said. His takeaway: Activists must also tend to their own needs.

"Sometimes when you're working in activism you get caught up in the work and you forget to take care of yourselves," he said.

For Miguel Bibanco, a 20-year-old from Fresno, the program was not just about changing immigration policy. It was also about modeling an ideal society. He pointed to workshops that highlighted the experiences of minorities within the immigrant community, including lesbians, gays and transgender people and immigrants from Asia.

"It's not just Latinos," Bibanco said. "If we want a society that is inclusive, we need to start by including them in the activism process."

On Thursday, he and Rodas snacked on taquitos and quesadillas at the program's graduation ceremony, held at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

As the participants posed for pictures with their diplomas, they heard from Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who wrote the California Dream Act while he was a state assemblyman.

Cedillo evoked the heated rhetoric nationally around immigration. This summer, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has ratcheted up his crusade against illegal immigration, calling this month for a revocation of the constitutional amendment that guarantees citizenship to those born in the U.S.

"We're being vilified," said Cedillo, who called this "one of the most critical times in our country."

He told the participants in the program that they were model members of the community. They were "hopeful, not hateful," he said, "optimistic, not pessimistic."

"Thank you," he said. "You've shown up."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com
Twitter: @katelinthicum

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