Carlos Vargas (ICLP 2017) is an ActionNYC navigator with the immigrant services and advocacy nonprofit Make The Road New York and a first-year law student at CUNY School of Law. As a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, he is a plaintiff in New York State’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over its termination of DACA. We spoke with Carlos about the suit, his work to protect and organize immigrant communities, and the now widely-used deportation defense manual he first developed for his Community Change project at Coro.
As an immigrant and DACA-recipient, how has your life changed since the election of 2016?
Everything has become more uncertain. Up until then, I was able to make plans with more certainty. After termination of DACA in 2017, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to renew my status, and it became difficult to make long term plans—like going to law school or buying a home.
How are you helping to lead the fight to preserve DACA?
Make The Road New York is one of the organizational plaintiffs in New York State’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over the termination of DACA. We needed individuals to join the lawsuit, so I volunteered and now I am one of six plaintiffs. It was a big decision, because it meant putting my name on legal documents and challenging the administration. At a time when my community is under attack, it was a risk, but I felt the need to do my part.
I have gone to the hearings in the Southern District court, held press conferences after each hearing, and been active on social media to let the people know that DACA recipients will continue the fight in the courts, legislatively, and by organizing in the streets. I have also been working with the community to gather stories and data to show how DACA has benefited New York State and the country as a whole.
With DACA now before the Supreme Court, what advice do you have for DACA recipients and their allies?
DACA recipients who are eligible to renew, should do so as soon as possible, because we don’t know what the court will decide. They should share their stories, because those are powerful tools. In particular, they should share them with community members who are able to vote—especially those who vote in local elections. Local elections are as powerful as presidential elections.
How else are you supporting immigrant communities through your work?
At Make the Road we have a campaign to keep ICE out of the courts. There has been an increased ICE presence in New York City, including in the courts. We are raising awareness of the fear that many in our community have about going to court, even for something as simple as a traffic ticket.
What was your Community Change project at Coro, and has it influenced your work since then?
I helped create a deportation defense manual to help the people in immigrant communities navigate the system if a family member is detained or has contact with immigration authorities. We implemented it at Make the Road and in the community in response to the increasing immigration raids. It’s an important resource, because it informs people of their rights, whether they are documented or undocumented. We use it to this day—now more than ever, in fact. It’s available online at immigrantdefensemanual.org.
What is the one thing you learned at Coro that has helped you the most in your work?
The knowledge I gained at Coro about leadership styles has helped me immensely. I learned that leadership comes in many different forms. It was eye-opening because I didn’t realize that there’s a science behind working effectively with people who have different leadership styles. I was able to identify my leadership style and because of that I am a more effective communicator and a better collaborator with others in my field who have a variety of leadership styles.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to young, emerging leaders?
There’s a quote I like by Simon Sinek: “Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those who are in your charge.” We are conditioned to think that leadership is about dictating and pointing in a direction, but that takes away the humanity. So, I would tell young leaders that it’s critical to communicate with your team on a human level.
How has the Coro network of alumni helped you in your career?
Coro has been a life-changing experience. It’s incredibly empowering to be in a group of like-minded individuals who fight and believe in the work you’re doing. I’ve benefited not only from connections within my cohort, but also by connecting with people from other cohorts. A prime example is Carlos Menchaca (Fellows 2005), Chair of the New York City Council Committee on Immigration, which has jurisdiction over matters affecting immigration in the City, including the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Having Coro in common has been a good conversation starter.
What are your goals for the future?
Broadly, I want to continue the fight for social justice and continue organizing for my community.
More specifically, I have two more years of law school ahead of me, and then I want to practice immigration law. I want to change immigration policy and chip away at the mechanisms that are in place to keep immigrants from becoming citizens. There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and they’re not undocumented because they don’t want to change their status but because there aren’t pathways for them to do so.