At the beginning of this year, the highly esteemed campaigner Carlos Saavedra came to the University of Leicester as part of a national tour with Hope Not Hate. During his talk, Carlos discussed his childhood as an immigrant in the United States and explained how he believed a positive stance on immigration could win political parties more votes.
Appearing determined yet extremely positive and happy to joke about his experiences, Carlos spoke about how the organisation he coordinated, United We Dream, was credited with encouraging President Obama to sign an executive order to defer deportations of immigrants in the US. The organisation won much praise, with The Huffington Post describing Carlos as the person whose “movement almost single-handedly changed the direction of the Obama administration’s immigration policy”, winning Obama 71% of the Latino vote in the 2012 election.
After his talk, I spoke with Carlos about the impact he thinks positive views towards immigration could have on politics, what campaigners could learn from the Dreamers’ success and his experience growing up as an immigrant in the US.
Carlos Saavedra: I think it will benefit. I think people have to talk about who they are. In most of the newspapers that I’ve been seeing, it’s really quite anti-immigrant stuff. It’s like, immigrants are this, or that, so I think it’s important for the community to say who they are, because I actually think that British society is negating the contributions of immigrants because they’re not telling their story.
SO: What kind of issues do you think immigrants face in the UK, compared to those in America?
CS: I think it will be great if you can ask them, because I think that would be part of them telling their story. But from the little but that I’ve seen, they are facing deportation, some of them are facing destitution. You can have somebody that is coming to the UK faced by a war back in their country coming here seeking refuge, and they have to wait seven years. But in the middle of those seven years, you’re struggling to find work, or the government tells you no you’ve got to wait or maybe at the end you’ll get rejected after spending seven years here waiting. So I think they are really struggling.
SO: As part of the Amnesty International society at Leicester, we did a fiver a day challenge, living off just five pounds a day, the amount which is given to refugees in this country. It was quite difficult, considering we had to catch buses, feed ourselves and buy toiletries with such a small amount, we really struggled.
CS: Once you get the buses you’re done. You can just go around, but that’s it!
SO: To what extent do you think the United We Dream project did impact United States politics? Were there organisations you worked alongside?
CS: There were plenty of organisations, we were just one of them. I think many of the other Latino organisations were very impactful in getting people registered to get a lot of new Latino voters on board. There was a whole process of 10 years of education. But I think the role that the whole Dreamer community played is that we were able to tell a story about what a part of the community wanted. And we were able to push politicians to make choices. And I think that’s what started to create some changes. It’s crazy, you can call a Latino household and ask what’s a Dreamer, and they tell you those people want to go to school but can’t, and that’s unfair. They have an emotion around it.
SO: It’s good to get the public on side.
CS: You have to. Because if you don’t get public opinion, then they pass all the laws against you. It’s about achieving massive popular support. So now the question is how do we mobilise that. That’s our next goal.
SO: How do you think organisations like Hope Not Hate and Amnesty can learn from what you did in America?
CS: I think what they can take from it is two things, one, doing a lot of training to engage a lot of new people in the organisation. It’s a constant process which is the backbone. The second piece is constantly confronting the political parties who say they are your friends. So the Labour party, I’m sorry, but you’re gonna get hit in the face, because you’re not delivering.
SO: What kind of a role do you think the issue of immigration will play in the 2015 UK election?
CS: It sounds like it’s gonna be dirty and people are gonna get beat up. Unless people do something, we’re going to go to a place of more backwardness.
SO: I suppose this is a bit of a personal question, but how was growing up as an immigrant in the United States?
CS: For me personally, it was always a search for identity. Was I from Peru, was I from America, was I from Boston? And then there’s the whole element of not having the documents… So you can not plan around your life. You can’t plan to have a job, so you’re constantly in this limbo and it’s very stressful.