Meet The Women Working To Keep Immigrant Families Together

Meet The Women Working To Keep Immigrant Families Together

For immigrants’ rights activists, the first year and a half of President Donald Trump’s administration has been anything but easy. The president, who kicked off his campaign by announcing his plan to deport as many “bad hombres” as possible, has attacked immigrants since his first day in office—but immigrants’ rights activists across the country, many of whom are women of color, are fighting back.

Last month, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy led to migrant children being separated from their families at the border and sent to substandard youth detention centers and shelters. Hundreds of thousands of outraged Americans marched against Trump’s immigration policies and in support of immigrant families. “This is not America,” one horrified protester in Suffolk County, New York told the New York Times. “This is not the country that I want to live in.”

Longtime immigration activists, however, view the recent family separation crisis as the culmination of decades of awful immigration policies that are now being exacerbated—but were not implemented—by Trump. These activists were working with immigrant communities long before the family separation crisis came to a head, challenging not only right-wing nativists but also, at times, liberals who implemented similarly harmful policies.

Immigrants’ rights activists aren’t exclusively working to fight conservatives’ bad immigration policies, but also to win liberals over to their cause.

President Barack Obama, for example, deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors and was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” by some immigration activists. Obama did implement Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allowed nearly one million undocumented youth to legally live and work in the United States, but did not provide a path to citizenship.

But he did so only after the Democrat-controlled Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act, a much better policy. And it was the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, that laid the groundwork for Trump’s disastrous immigration policies.

All of this is to say that immigrants’ rights activists aren’t exclusively working to fight conservatives’ bad immigration policies, but also to win liberals over to their cause. This has always been difficult, tireless work. Under Trump, it’s become more difficult than ever. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of this state-sponsored cruelty, but these three women—Jess Morales Rocketto, Angy Rivera, and 12-year-old activist Leah, who is only being identified by her first name to protect her family’s privacy—show us how individuals can make a difference.

Jess Morales Rocketto

Jess Morales Rocketto, the political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says that Trump’s draconian immigration policy is built on that of previous administrations. “This isn’t something that sprang up overnight. It is absolutely true that the Obama administration set up some of the infrastructure that Trump is now using,” Morales Rocketto said. But, she added, “this is an absolutely, completely unprecedented attack on immigrants.”

The first time we spoke, Morales Rocketto was preparing to go to the border town of McAllen, Texas, where she and other activists held a three-hour vigil for Marco Antonio Muñoz, a migrant from Honduras who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with his wife and young son in May and killed himself after federal immigration authorities separated him from them.

“We had a vigil for him right outside the Ursula processing center [the largest migrant processing center in the country],” says Morales Rocketto. “As we were there, many busloads of children were passing by us. We said to them, ‘No están solos’—you are not alone—and that we loved them. They put their hands on the windows and looked out and cheered at us. I know that they could hear us.”

For Morales Rocketto, this kind of work is just as personal as it is political.

For Morales Rocketto, this kind of work is just as personal as it is political. “What really motivates me to do this work is that I’m a fourth-generation American but my grandfather was actually deported under a program called Operation Wetback,” Morales Rocketto says.

Under that 1954 program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service—ICE’s predecessor—illegally deported hundreds of naturalized citizens to Mexico. “It’s really never left me how lucky I am to be here and how fickle the immigration system can be for families,” says Morales Rocketto.

The national spotlight may have shifted away from the border and toward one of the president’s many new scandals, but the NDWA hasn’t taken its eyes off the border. Morales Rocketto and a group called Forward US are working on a new initiative called Flights for Families, which helps pay for the flights of migrants who are released from detention and allowed to remain in the United States while their asylum cases are decided.

“Most of the time, they’re given a bus ticket and, ‘Okay, bye, thank you!’ We feel like it’s so important to give these families the dignity and respect that they’ve been denied when they were separated,” said Morales Rocketto. The organization has provided travel accommodations for 287 families so far and is working on getting corporate sponsorship.

“When we started organizing, we said we wouldn’t rest until they’re reunited,” she says. “We’re going to see them through this entire process.”

Angy Rivera

Angy Rivera, the co-director of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (YLC), also has a personal connection to the work; her immigration activism began when she, as an undocumented high school senior, realized she didn’t qualify for financial aid at most universities. She got involved with the YLC shortly after, first as a volunteer, then as an intern, a fellow, and a core member before becoming one of the organization’s inaugural co-directors.

“It’s a challenge,” Rivera, 27, said of her new position. “I’m young, I’m a woman, I’m an immigrant, so there’s a lot of difficulties navigating the nonprofit world.”

With the help of donors and volunteers, the YLC works in conjunction with other organizations, like Make the Road New York, to provide legal and housing services to undocumented youth throughout the state. The organization also has a scholarship fund for undocumented students and held a fundraiser to help people pay to renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status.

The YLC is entirely led by immigrant youth.

But for Rivera, the YLC’s most important feature is that it is entirely led by immigrant youth. Other spaces give these services to youth, but the YLC trains young immigrants to advocate for themselves, Rivera said. “They’re creating the program, the workshops, the spaces, the curriculum through their own experiences.”

The organization has three annual leadership training events where young people learn about immigrants’ rights and has fostered a network of DREAM Teams—groups that advocate for the passage of the DREAM Act, which would guarantee in-state tuition at public universities for undocumented youth, who otherwise have to pay international rates—at universities and high schools across the country. These clubs aren’t just political, Rivera said; they “create a space for undocumented students to feel welcomed, to thrive, and to challenge their administrators when not enough is being done for immigrant students.”


Leah, a 12-year-old activist from Miami, became attuned to the problems with the U.S.’s immigration system through her own experience. Despite her young age, Leah is currently one of the faces of the #FamilesBelongTogether movement. She gave a speech at at the immigrants’ rights rally in Washington, D.C. on June 30, where she talked about how scared she was that ICE would someday arrest her mother, an immigrant from Nicaragua.

“I live in the constant fear of losing my mom to deportation. My mom is strong, beautiful, and brave. She is also a person who taught me how to speak up when I see things that aren’t fair,” Leah said at the rally.

In an interview with Girlboss, Leah explained that her mother took her to rallies and marches when she was younger, and helped her fight against a family friend’s deportation. “One day, when I went to school, my best friend was feeling really sad. I asked him what was wrong and he told me that his dad was going to be deported,” Leah said. Her mother helped her write a letter to their local Congressperson and, with community support, eventually stopped the deportation. After that, Leah said, “I decided I wanted to be more involved.”

Her mother helped her write a letter to their local Congressperson and, with community support, eventually stopped the deportation. After that, Leah said, “I decided I wanted to be more involved.”

Now she hopes to help stop families from being separated on a larger scale.

“I think it’s unfair that people have to be in detention centers without their parents,” Leah said. “I think [other young kids] should stand up for their communities. Start rallies and marches, and write a speech maybe. Immigrants built these communities. People should care about us, because we’re all human. We may be from different countries, but we are all brothers and sisters and we all deserve to be loved.”


The fight for immigrants’ rights and against deportation is ongoing and multifaceted. “There isn’t a silver bullet here,” says Morales Rocketto. “The situation is so complicated and terrible because our immigration system is so complicated and terrible.”

Every step of the way, women have been leading this fight.

But there is hope. Organizations like the NDWA are still sponsoring marches and rallies, drawing attention to the fact that the crisis at the border is far from over. Young activists like Leah are educating their communities about these issues. And in New York, which is far from the border but nonetheless affected by Trump’s immigration policies, the YLC is doing vital work on the ground for those immigrants whose stories haven’t grabbed the spotlight.

This work, more vital now than ever, started long before Trump’s inauguration. It will likely continue after he leaves office. Every step of the way, women have been leading this fight.