Immigration activist recalls his past, advocates for change

An event story on immigration and social mobility in the United States, published on North by Northwestern in May 2008.

Julian Lazalde’s mother always told him, “‘If you forget why you should study, look at your father’s hands.”

“He had big, fat, sausage fingers from all the work that he was doing. His hands were covered with splinters, pieces of metal.”

On Wednesday night, Lazalde recounted his mother’s advice to 30 or so Northwestern students at Tech as part of speech sponsored by volunteer group NCDC and the International Students Association, in which he spoke about his life and his job as a community organizer for undocumented immigrants in Little Village and Pilsen in Chicago.

Lazalde’s father worked five days a week in a factory in Cicero, and the remaining two days in a restaurant. Lazalde’s mother had risked her life crossing the border between Mexico and the United States in 1977 to meet her husband in Chicago, before Lazalde was even born. While crossing the river in the middle of the night, she dropped her three-year-old boy, who was rescued from drowning by a stranger. She later spent eight days stranded in the desert before stumbling upon a small Texas town.

After graduating from Williams College in 2004, Lazalde decided that he wanted to work with people like his parents.

In his talk, Lazalde emphasized the importance of education in helping immigrant communities, especially Latin-Americans, to move forward.

“People want to celebrate that we’re the biggest minority, but the majority of us aren’t getting through high school and aren’t getting into these upper levels of professionalism,” Lazalde said. “So why does it matter that we’re the biggest minority in the country? I’d rather be the smallest if it means we’re getting up and getting out. But we’re not.”

He said that many high-school counselors tell students that college is out of their league, discouraging many youth from attending higher education.

Lazalde has worked on the “DREAM Act,” which aims to enable undocumented youth who have attended U.S. schools for several years to gain legal status and be able to enroll in universities or the armed forces.

Oftentimes, students who have spent most of their lives in the United States will realize only once they’re filling college application forms that they don’t have a social security number, making them illegible for financial aid, Lazalde said. Lazalde mentioned an undocumented teenage girl with a 4.5 GPA who was admitted to Northwestern, but had to go to the University of Illinois instead for financial reasons.

“She should be here with you, and all because of a lack of nine numbers,” Lazalde said. “Places like Northwestern, places like Williams, they’re not finding that kind of tally. Those kinds of stories I think are so important, and these institutions are losing out.”

Another issue that Lazalde has worked on is getting people in Pilsen and Little Village to vote. The 22nd ward, in which these neighborhoods are located, has been ranked first or second in lowest voter turnout for the past seven years.

“They’re coming from places where your vote never mattered,” Lazalde said of immigrants. “We don’t vote, it’s pitiful.”

Lazalde said illegal immigration is not an issue that is sufficiently comprehensively addressed.

“It’s an election year, so no one’s going to touch [immigration] with a ten-foot pole,” he said.


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