This Arizona Activist Is Getting Out the Young, Latinx Vote
After Reyna Montoya’s father was kidnapped by the Mexican police in 1996, he fled to Arizona, where he looked for work. Reyna and her family continued to experience death threats, and in 2000, when she was 13 years old, Reyna and her family fled to the United States, where they reunited with Reyna’s father. Her family was unaware their situation would qualify them to apply for asylum, so they settled as undocumented immigrants.
Montoya faced many challenges because of her undocumented status, including struggles to get a driver’s license, a college scholarship, and a job. Perhaps most notably, she had to advocate for her father and translate documents for him in light of him facing threats of deportation.
This experience led Montoya to start Aliento Votes, an Arizona-based community organization that aims to transform the trauma of being criminalized by the U.S detention and deportation system into hope and action for undocumented immigrants. As of March 2020, 23,990 DACA recipients live in Arizona — a state in which nearly one-third of residents are of Hispanic origin.
Aliento, which means “breath” in Spanish, does this through art workshops and open mic sessions, but also through programs that help Dreamers — the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), a 2012 program which allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation and to work — maintain their status, including renewing their DACA status when the expiration date is approaching.
In mid-September, the organization launched the Aliento Votes Campaign, which helps Arizonans register to vote, encourages Latinx folks to vote in the November election, and educates other voters on the challenges and difficulties Dreamers face, including threats to their status due to changes made to the program this past summer under the Trump administration.
Supermajority News spoke to Reyna Montoya about the plight of Dreamers, Aliento Votes, and what drives her as a community organizer.
Tell us about Aliento’s work and how it helps the undocumented community in Arizona?
We have programming from the age of 7 to post-secondary education [and] we take a multigenerational approach to our work. We have had an impact statewide. Prior to COVID-19, we had 25,000 people [come together in-person] since our inception, in all our programs combined. [We’ve had] multiple events in Arizona, several trainings in different states, and a national campaign after DACA was rescinded. We’ve had a digital footprint of 100,000 on our social media.
When COVID-19 happened, we started seeing we have a footprint in 44 states because of our events — we now have virtual events where people join from other states. So now, there’s been a lot of states reaching out to us about how we can bring our programming into different states.
We define our work in three main buckets. Many undocumented people don’t have healthcare, or they don’t have access [to it]. We’re non-clinical, so we use art as a vehicle for us to heal, but we’re on the preventive side. How do we provide mindful strategies? And we connect them with professionals. We’ve had different partnerships with licensed therapists, and we were able to provide free group therapy for folks from this background. We also have a program which [includes] healing workshops and open mics. We used to do them in person, but now, everything has been transitioned digitally which has opened up the doors for people in [states like] California, New York, Kansas, and Tennessee to join our programming.
The next program is our nurture program — that is leadership development. We have a fellowship [through which we] bring [students] together as a cohort for 10 months, once a month, and we do individual coaching once a week, where we prepare them with skills for them to then replicate leaders on their school campus.
Our third program, the transition program, looks like educating and training and doing professional development for educators, and how they can support students as they’re thinking about going to college, and they don’t have papers. That can look like going to the State Capitol, where for two years, we have successfully brought 300 students from [all over the state of] Arizona. [During these visits, students] talk directly to their elected officials. It’s really empowering to see 14-year-olds talking to elected officials, and seeing that brightness in their eyes and seeing how they feel so empowered from before, when maybe they were a little bit afraid of telling their story of growing up undocumented, to now taking charge and saying, “Actually, I’m educated this elected official that they don’t know about the issue!”
What do you want people to understand about Dreamers?
What I want people to understand is the mental and emotional toll it takes to be in constant limbo. You are protected in a way because you’re able to work lawfully, you have a driver’s license, you have protection from deportation. But you don’t know how long that’s going to last. A lot of our fears around [the effects of] new administration [on DACA’s status] came true when President Trump ended the DACA program [which he tried to do in 2017 and in June 2020].
Right now, [Aliento is] thinking about DACA recipients who are no longer students. A lot of the young, undocumented minors who were in the pipeline to apply for DACA — they had to meet specific requirements and wait until the age of 15 to qualify — are now no longer able to apply because of the Trump administration’s new restrictions. They’re completely undocumented and didn’t have the opportunity to age into the program.
Also, close to a third of recipients are parents of U.S. citizens. Now, we have to renew our permits (which allow undocumented immigrants to work and grant protection from deportation) every year, and we have to pay $495 every year [to the U.S. government], and that doesn’t include attorney fees. It definitely creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. Many of us have been here since we were kids, and see the U.S. as our home, and we’re not being recognized as people who belong here.
What was behind the creation of the Aliento Votes Campaign?
For us, it’s about the core belief that while some of us might not have the right to vote, [and while] some of us are voting for the first time, through our stories, [we can] really talk to voters and say, “This is my case. I don’t have the privilege to vote; I don’t have that right. Please participate in democracy and make sure you’re not wasting your vote. Regardless of where you’re at, a lot of families and a lot of students are worried about school reopenings, the inequities brought to light during COVID, their parents being deported. Even people like me [Dreamers, undocumented students, children of immigrants], we’re worried about our fate.”
So for us [at Aliento, we want to] make sure that young people specifically feel like their voice matters. … We’re seeing many people are dormant, and not because they’re apathetic, [but] because they haven’t been engaged. They feel so disillusioned that it’s like, “does my voice even matter?” And that’s where we come in. We say, “we’re non-partisan, we don’t want to tell you who to vote for. But we want you to be educated on how your life is being impacted by whoever it is in power.”
What drives you as a community organizer?
If I can be very honest, sometimes I feel a little bit naive, but I really believe this to my core: We as a community can do so much better. We don’t have to live in this polarized world where we continue to see just the worst in humanity. But if we change the conditions, [if] we start building relationships and getting to know each other at the human level, I know we can change hearts and minds.