Online immigrant reform organizer Juan Escalante. 
Courtesy Juan Escalante

A grad student by day, online activist by night

Sept. 15 marked the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month—or, as it is known in Spanish, Mes de la Herencia Hispana - a time when the United States pays tribute to the history, culture and contributions of past and present Hispanic Americans. 

According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million Americans identify as Hispanic—and that number is growing. Immigration has long been a part of America’s national history, and the role that immigrants have played—and still play  in building this country is one of the reasons “the American dream” is still shared around the world today.  America is a place where new beginnings and new lives are possible.

From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, msnbc.com will be profiling outstanding Hispanic activists who are making a difference in the fight for immigration reform and who are providing critical support services to undocumented communities. 

“Undocumented youth are NOT attached to either political party. Politicians who think that they can woo us simply by waving the phantom carrot of immigration reform in front of us are deeply mistaken.”
Juan Escalante, graduate student and online activist

Name: Juan Escalante

City, State: Tallahassee, Florida

Occupation: Graduate student at Florida State University

How did you get involved with immigration advocacy?

In 2007, I received a call from the University of Central Florida asking for a copy of my green card. My mother revealed to me that our immigration case had been closed without appeal due to our lawyer’s poor advice, thus leaving us in an immigration limbo. Determined to find a solution to our situation, I became involved on an online forum (DreamAct.info) and started my online activism that way. Since then, my advocacy work has translated into various roles and projects, many of which have been carried out via various online platforms. My goal is to educate individuals on how new technologies can benefit their campaigns.

Give us a sense of what your day looks like:

I am currently a full-time graduate student! I usually wake up at 6:00 a.m., head to the gym and then head into work. Depending on the day of the week, I go to class or to various events taking place at Florida State University or across Tallahassee. Most of my online activism either takes places throughout the day during my downtime, or at night. Twitter has consistently been my platform of choice to share news and opinions about immigration related policy, and depending on the landscape, you might find me pushing a specific issue. Most recently, I was able to aid the effort to pass HB851 in Florida, a bill that grants in-state tuition to certain undocumented students.

What is the biggest misconception about immigration reform/undocumented immigrants?

Without taking the “undocumented immigrant do not pay taxes” myth into account, I would say that there are two main misconceptions about undocumented youth in particular. One is the perception that undocumented youth are automatically aligned with Democrats. Undocumented youth are NOT attached to either political party. Politicians who think that they can woo us simply by waving the phantom carrot of immigration reform in front of us are deeply mistaken, we are out in our communities to hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable for inaction. The second is the “free ride” education myth. We are in no way soliciting a free ride or pass from anyone. A recent poll by the PEW Research Center showed how undocumented immigrants would favor an ease on deportations over citizenship, on the same vein, what most of us seek is an opportunity to get an education, get a job, and, ultimately contribute back to this country.

Were you surprised by the president’s decision to delay executive action until after the midterms?

There are no expectations. Not from the president, not from Republicans, Democrats, the White House or Congress. We live in this political vacuum where words and promises surrounding the immigration the debate are meaningless, and are just sound bites to energize apologists for the inaction of our elected officials. The president’s delay in use of executive authority should have surprised no one. What else could be said of an administration that prioritized immigration enforcement over sensible solutions to the issue? It is 2014, years after Obama’s first 100 days promise, and we still have no DREAM Act, no immigration reform and no relief for our families.

What type of help is most needed on the ground and how can one get involved?

One of the most crucial elements of the immigrant rights and reform movements has, and continues to be, personal stories. We need everyone who is impacted by the broken immigration system to wield their personal narrative and struggle as a tool of empowerment for their communities. This means being involved in all levels of government, educating community members about the issue, seeking state or local organization, or being active on social networks – you don’t have to be an activist be involved, you just need the passion to inform and educate others.

Was there ever an instance when you felt defeated? What made you keep going?

I have felt defeated at the culmination of every stage in my academic career. As a freshly minted high school student, in the fall of 2007, I felt depressed and uncertain about that the future might have in store for me as I saw all of my friends go off into the colleges of their choice. The same feeling came over once I completed my associates degree, in 2009, when I was unsure as to whether or not I would be able to enroll in a public university. And finally, in 2012, when I completed my degree at Florida State University but knew I would not be able to obtain a job in my field. In all of these three instances I saw myself at odds with what I wanted to do and what I had accomplished. Every time I crossed the finish line academically, I saw myself having a degree that had no worth because I would not be able to use it – I felt like this big accomplishment would just be another certificate on my wall, no legal status meant no job, no opportunity to develop professionally.

Yet, every time, when it seemed there was no point in continuing, I remembered all the sacrifices that my parents had made for my brothers and I. Their strength and perseverance throughout all of these years is what has kept me going, I want to make sure that their efforts are not in vain. Everything I have done, and continue to do, is to help my family thrive in the country we have called home for the past 14 years, even as the uncertainty of our immigration status continues to loom over our heads.

Stay in touch with Juan on Twitter @JuanSaaa and his blog JuanSaaa 

Don’t miss Carmen Lima’s story: Undocumented teen shows no fear — even when confronting lawmakers

Florida, Immigration Policy and Immigration Reform

A grad student by day, online activist by night