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Author: Chris Brown

Juan: A DACA Story

Juan: A DACA Story

Juan Ramirez picture for DACA Story 9.5.17My name is Juan and I am a DACA beneficiary.  I came to this country with my family when I was 9 years old.  As soon as I started school, it was my goal to learn English as quickly as possible, and by the time I was in eighth grade, I was able to speak it fluently.  I also was very diligent and dedicated to my studies, earning top grades consistently throughout high school and college.

I was able to go on to college and study. My dream was to become a teacher so I made plans to go onto graduate school and earn my teaching certification.  Even though at the time I had no legal status, I was determined to continue my dreams.  Unfortunately, the day after graduation while on my way to graduate school I was stopped by Border Patrol and put on deportation proceedings. Thanks to Senator Durbin I was able to receive deferred action prior to the DACA program.  Once DACA was in effect, I was able to continue my stay in this country and my deportation was put on hold.

Thanks to DACA I have been given the opportunity to contribute to this country in many ways.  I have worked in the nonprofit sector organizing English as a Second Language and Computer classes for immigrant adults.  I also have worked in healthcare, providing interpretation services for patients and medical staff.  Without DACA, I would no longer be able to contribute to this country in significant ways.

Adriana Velázquez: A DACA Story

Adriana Velázquez: A DACA Story

By Adriana Velázquez

Adriana V DACA 2It’s been 15 years since I first placed foot in this country. My name is Adriana Velazquez and I am an undocumented young adult in the south side of Chicago. I came to the United States when I was 11 years old in 2002 with my mom and my two sisters to finally live as a family with my dad and to build a better future together.

I received DACA in 2013 and have had it since. Having DACA for me has meant having a range of new possibilities. Before DACA, most of my decisions were heavily weighted on my lack of status and my inability to work legally. I refused to access a fake social security number to find work, and risk getting caught. Luckily, I found stipend work that did not require SSN, but pretty soon I realized how limited my options were. Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. I went to college to study a B.A. in Music, which I paid through private scholarships, stipend internships, and selling chocolates from a box I carried wherever I went. When I was pursuing my degree, I made sure I didn’t choose a career in which I wasn’t going to be able to pursue work. I couldn’t be a teacher, I couldn’t be a nurse or doctor, and I definitely couldn’t be a lawyer.

Adriana V DACA 3As a DACA recipient, suddenly I had more choices on what I wanted to study and where I could go. When I finally graduated from NEIU in May 2015, for the first time, I was able to research a variety of jobs I wanted to apply for. It got me all excited for a minute that, heck, if I wanted to be a server at some fancy restaurant I could; if I wanted to be a music teacher at a private institution, I could be that too!

Having DACA gave me the possibility to get my Driver’s License and state ID. This has given me a peace of mind when I think of the road trips I want to take and the places I want to fly to (of course, all still within the US). DACA was not perfect, but for 5 years, it had given me and 800,000 others a 2 year renewable ticket to a somewhat normal life. I am finally building credit! I have a job I love doing and, with that, the ability to live a healthy life and help my family do the same. Now, when I see a police officer drive next to me, my first instinct isn’t to fear anymore. When I hear my friends are going to New York or Miami for vacation, my first instinct isn’t to exclude myself anymore. When I get a Job offer or think of continuing my Education, I don’t have immediate limits.

DACA also impacted my family and friends. Several of my closest friends were finally able to apply to a job they enjoy that offers them health insurance, improving the way they can take care of themselves. Now that my two sisters and I are able to work, my mother and father are impacted by DACA because we are able to contribute to the home expenses and are three more drivers in the house in case of an emergency. I had also seen a presence of depression and anxiety hovering over my undocumented peers who feared encounters with the law, detainment, and deportation. Having DACA boosted the confidence of many to excel without fear and granted them some tranquility in their everyday life.

Adriana Velazquez DACA 1Since I arrived in the United States, I’ve lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a strong but underserved part of the south side of Chicago. I learned English, excelled in school, and became involved in the visual and performing arts as well as with many opportunities to serve my community. Soon I was helping to paint a mural, developing community plays, providing mentorship for children, and helping to start a scholarship for youth in my neighborhood. Through my actions, I became an example to other youth and young adults in my community who, like me, look for brighter futures they can be a part of.

Thriving and modeling for others has given me the opportunity to see individuals and families around me grow in their own strength while continuing to disprove the stereotype that people might have of me because of my status or the color of my skin. I have grown so much in the past 5 years; became a bolder, stronger, more confident me. That is my contribution to this country, and one that cannot be taken away by ending DACA. My ability to find a job is diminished greatly by the president’s unjust decision, but my courage, resilience, and will to fight for what I believe in is stronger than ever.

Today I am a community organizer, musician, leader, sister, daughter, friend; a human being. I am the seed of immigrants whose valuable teachings have made me into the person I am today. I will not stop seeking that brighter future when my family’s dignity and safety will not depend on the color of our skin, or the place we were born. Today is a special day. Today is my birthday, I will have celebrated 15 birthdays in the United States, a place I call my home. There is still so much more I can contribute and will continue to contribute to this home and I hope many will join me, undocumented or not, in continuing to fight with me for family, and the millions of immigrants because we have so much to give, we are not giving up, and we are here to stay.

Another great story on DACA youth is here.

SWOP’s response to the  White House’s horrifying decision to end DACA

SWOP’s response to the  White House’s horrifying decision to end DACA

Leaders of the Southwest Organizing Project are horrified at today’s White House announcement to end the highly successful Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA has a tremendous impact on the lives of nearly 800,000 young immigrants and their communities across the United States, including more than 42,000 who live in Illinois.

“Our federal government, through the much publicized DACA program, both encouraged and made a promise to young people that if they cooperated with the Federal Government, passed background checks and met other stringent requirements, they would be allowed to live and work legally in our communities without fear of deportation or reprisal,” said Jeff Bartow, Executive Director of the Southwest Organizing Project. “To break those promises to hardworking young residents and their families by ending DACA and removing the pledged protections is an injustice of the highest magnitude and inflicts tremendous damage to our country and our state far into the future, both economically and morally.”

The economic impact of the end of the DACA program is estimated to reduce our national GNP by more than $430 Billion over the next decade and cost the State of Illinois nearly $2.3 Billion annually in GDP losses. Many employers will lose strong employees they rely on, families will lose much needed incomes, and communities like ours all across the country will lose a generation of future leaders that we have invested so much in. Many of our residents who are US citizens risk separation from older brothers and sisters and even parents because of today’s terrible decision.

“I’ve come so far; being able to earn my degree in music, working to provide for my family, being a role model for my parents,” said Adriana Velazquez, a DACA recipient. “It doesn’t make sense why such a decision has been made. Many of my friends who have DACA are now married and have children. We all have been constructing our lives over the last 5 years based on the promise the Federal Government made to us.”

The Southwest Organizing Project believes that all immigrants are an important part of the fabric of our community and all immigrants have the right to live free of fear and deserve a path to citizenship. We believe that the young people who took our federal government’s DACA offer at face value, worked hard and lived up to their end of the bargain represent some of the brightest parts of the future of our nation.  And we condemn the decision by this administration to break the promise made to them, to their families, and to all the members of our community.

Time For Another Round Of ESL Classes

Time For Another Round Of ESL Classes

by Maggie Perales

SWOP is again partnering with Gage Park High School and Instituto del Progreso Latino to provide English as a Second Language classes for community residents.  The free classes begin on Tuesday, September 19th.  Literacy support begins at 9:30 a.m. and Level 1 and Level 2 classes begin at 11:30 a.m.

To participate, you must register.  Registration will take place on Tuesday, September 12th and Thursday, September 14th from 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. at Gage Park High School, 5630 S. Rockwell.  Be sure to bring an id and proof of address.  Participants will also need to take a placement test that day.

If you have questions, please contact Maggie Perales at 773-471-8208 ext. 118 or

SWOP Rallies To Support DACA

SWOP Rallies To Support DACA

IMG_0261On Tuesday, August 15th SWOP leaders attended a press conference downtown in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.  The purpose of the press conference was twofold: celebrate five successful years of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program and to send a message to the current administration to keep the program in place.

SWOP was one of many participants in the press conference pulled together by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).  Joining SWOP and ICIRR were leaders from The Resurrection Project, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Communities United, SEIU Local 1, Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Mujeres Latinas En Accion, Syrian Community Network, Enlace Chicago, Access Living, Centro Romero, NAFI, West Suburban Action Project-PASO, Centro Sin Fronteras, Jewish Congress on Urban Affairs, and Arab American Action Network.

IMG_0267SWOP leader Rafi Peterson kicked off the press conference with a declaration of solidarity with immigrants.  He called for continued support for DACA and an end to unfair deportations.  Rafi was followed by a host of speakers, who talked about their positive experiences of participating in DACA.  There were young people going to college to get law and social work degrees.  Young people able to support their families because they can legally work.  Parents who are proud of their children’s ability to succeed in this country.  The press conference ended with chants of “Sí Se Puede” and “No More Fear” as the group vowed to continue fighting for DACA and an end to deportations.

Building A Vision for Gage Park High School

Building A Vision for Gage Park High School

IMG_8862A group of SWOP leaders, along with staff from Gage Park High School and partners gathered in the school cafeteria on Tuesday, July 18th for the first of two planning sessions.  The goal of the first session was to develop a vision of a successful Gage Park High School.  The goal of the second session, to be held on August 15th, is to develop the action plan to bring that vision to fruition.

The group began with a discussion on what everyone knew about Gage Park.  Answers ranged from “it has a rich history” to “Gage is working hard at creating a space that is safe and open to social emotional learning” to “Gage used to have almost 1,000 students.”

IMG_8864Next, the group spent time working individually and collectively to identify a vision that everyone can support.  Through their discussions, the group identified eight big areas where they had visions of success for Gage Park.  The big areas of the vision are: Academic Success, Post-secondary Success, Built Environment, Community School, Safe Space, Full Capacity, Model for Schools That Need Reform, and Student Centric.  Within each of these categories, the group came up with one to ten specific vision statements on what success will look like at Gage Park.  Specific vision statements included: “Robust teacher professional development” and “Health center at GPHS” and “600-800 enrollment.”

If you are interested in participating in the next planning session, please contact Jamillah Rashad at

After a Great Run at SWOP, Andrea Ortez Moves On.

After a Great Run at SWOP, Andrea Ortez Moves On.

aSWOP Staff-Andrea Ortez-2671Andrea Ortez, most recently leading SWOP’s Parent Mentor Program, is leaving to take on education work in the south suburbs.  Andrea came to SWOP in 2008 as a Loyola student looking to make a difference in a community.  She definitely accomplished that goal.  Over her years at SWOP, she worked on Teen REACH, VOYCE, Reclaiming Southwest Chicago, community safety, and the Parent Mentor Program.  Andrea brought life and fun, and occasional baked goods, to the SWOP office.  She will be missed and we wish her well.

Jamillah Rashad will be managing the Parent Mentor Program this summer.  Please contact her at with any questions.

Ready to Become a U.S. Citizen?  SWOP can help!

Ready to Become a U.S. Citizen?  SWOP can help!

On Monday, July 17th, SWOP will host our next U.S. Citizenship workshop.  SWOP staff and volunteers, working with staff from Instituto del Progresso del Latino, can help you complete your paperwork and file your application for citizenship. With funding from the State of Illinois’ New Americans Initiative and IDHS, SWOP has co-led five different workshops over the past six months where over 450 people were helped to fill out their citizenship application.

You must have an appointment to participate.  Please contact Adriana Velazquez at 773-471-8208 ext. 113 or to find out the paperwork you will need to bring with you and to schedule a time to come in.  Please don’t miss out on this opportunity.

Already a citizen?  SWOP can use your help at the workshop.  We need volunteers to help greet applicants, make copies, translate, and to help fill out forms. Training for application volunteers will be provided 7/14/17 at 10 a.m. here at the SWOP office! Contact Adriana before Thursday July 13th if you can volunteer at the workshop on the 17th.

It’s Summer Time, Let The Fun Begin

It’s Summer Time, Let The Fun Begin

July and August will be busy times for young people and their families in Chicago Southwest.  That’s because SWOP will be hosting a number of safe and fun activities throughout the community.

Starting July 11th, SWOP will kick off a weekly series of Hoop in the Hoods tournaments at Morrill Elementary and Gage Park High School.  At Hoops, teams of young people from the community will learn basketball and teamwork skills as they compete against each other and prepare for the big Hoops Citywide tournament on August 19th.

Starting July 14th, SWOP kicks off PlayStreets activities across the community.  PlayStreets is a three hour “block party” giving families and community members the opportunity to get active, play sports and games, have fun, and be safe.

Both Hoops in the Hood and PlayStreets will have activities for the whole family.  Even if you don’t play basketball or other sports, come out and support local youth and join in the other fun stuff you can do at these events.  In addition to giving everyone a chance to play, both programs are employing young people to help run the events; giving them experience they need for their next job.

A big thank you to LISC Chicago, World Sports Chicago, and the Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities for their support of these programs.

To find our more information or to join in on the fun, please contact Jasmine at

Reclaiming Southwest Chicago Fundraising Campaign Kicks Off

Reclaiming Southwest Chicago Fundraising Campaign Kicks Off

May 25 2017 event -3473More than 500 community residents and stakeholders gathered on Thursday, May 25th at St. Adrian Church to kick off the Reclaiming Southwest Chicago Fundraising Campaign.  The event, led by SWOP and United Power leaders, celebrated the past success of the initial phase of the Reclaim campaign and laid out the plans and goals for future work.

May 25 2017 event -3455The meeting started with Fr. Tom from St. Adrian and Fr. Tony from St. Rita welcoming the group and leading a prayer for the community.  Betty Gutierrez, long-time SWOP leader and NHS Chicago Lawn board chair, let the group know the purpose of the meeting.  “We are here, with our allies from United Power, to celebrate the accomplishments of our Reclaiming Southwest Chicago Campaign, and to start the second phase of this work, as we kick off a fund raising campaign to complete the work of Reclaiming Southwest Chicago,“ said Betty. She added,  “We believe this campaign can be a model for what must happen, if we as Chicagoans are to rebuild other parts of our city seeking decent housing, good schools, and safe streets.“

May 25 2017 event -3686Nick Brunick, a United Power leader, discussed the successes of the first phase of the Reclaiming Campaign.  In the original 20-block target area, SWOP and United Power for Action and Justice raised approximately $8 million in funding and leveraged that funding into more than $15 million worth of investment in the neighborhood.  Through a joint venture partnership, SWOP and Brinshore Development acquired and are rehabbing 15 formerly vacant buildings that will provide 50 newly-rehabbed homes and apartments for local residents.  In addition, SWOP has organized local contractors, who have acquired and rehabbed smaller vacant properties on the same blocks – leading to the rehab of over 20 more properties consisting of 55 more homes and apartments.

As a result of this initiative, property values are up; foreclosures are down; the crime rate has been cut by 53%; the local schools are dramatically improved, and the number of vacant properties in the initial target area has decreased from over 93 in 2012 to only 21 in August of 2016.  By the end of 2017, SWOP’s goal is for no vacant properties to remain between Rockwell and California and between 63rd and 59th Streets.  “The successes of the Reclaim campaign show us how a committed group of leaders and institutions can come together, work holistically, and make a difference in the lives of families in a community,” said Nick Brunick, a leader with United Power for Action and Justice. “We are looking to spread the success of Reclaim to other communities in Chicago.”

May 25 2017 event -3605SWOP leaders then provided testimony on the impact of the Reclaiming campaign on their work.  Keana Lindo told the story of how she was forced out of the neighborhood, but through Reclaiming was recently able to move back into a newly rehabbed home.  Rashad Talley talked about the important impact of Reclaiming on Morrill School where he is principal.  Hassan Smith, a local contractor, talked about the support he received in investing in the community.  And Mayra Sarabia spoke about the Reclaim campaign’s effort to include all people, regardless of documentation status in the work to improve the community. She reminded those present that the campaign is not simply about housing. “It is about people connecting with each other to find common enough ground to organize for strong schools, peaceful neighborhoods, and, yes, good affordable housing.”

IMG_8561After a lively break to give people a chance to build relationships with others at the meeting, Rafi Peterson spoke to the group about the importance of the campaign starting with the people in room.  He said SWOP is challenging 1,000 families to give $20 each to show the depth of support for the Reclaim effort.  He then pulled out a donation envelope and made the first $20 contribution to the campaign himself.  By the end of the evening, he had been followed by over 100 other families who also made contributions to the campaign.  Four anonymous donors matched each dollar given to the campaign that evening.

May 25 2017 event -3676To wrap up the event, Jake Ament of LISC Chicago announced LISC’s commitment of $1,000,000 to the effort.  This was met with cheering and a standing ovation from all the participants.  LISC has been a long-time supporter of SWOP and the Reclaim campaign and has been impressed with the work to date.

As the meeting wrapped up, many in attendance expressed gratitude for the opportunity to come together to meet other community members, celebrate successes, and outline commitments for the future.  Everyone also understood this was the first step in a long campaign to reclaim another part of the community.  While this may have been daunting to others, it was very exciting to those at the event.

Listen to the WBEZ story about the event here and read the Chicago Tonight story here.