“It starts with young people”
Five Beloiters recently traveled to the nation’s capital to learn more about lobbying for immigration rights. Funded through the Weissberg Program in Human Rights and Social Justice, the trip showed the students how young people can advocate for lasting change.
Shruthi Chandrasekar’23, Martu Collie’23, Magali Gray’24, Autumn Green’24, and Veeka Malanchuk’24 received a crash-course in lobbying for immigration reform.
It all started because of Veeka’s involvement with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national Quaker nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. She works on their advocacy team with fellow young adults, lobbying their local leaders for issues including climate change and racial justice. Veeka recruited Martu to lobby for environmental justice with her in Wisconsin’s state capitol earlier in the year, and soon her friends Shruthi, Autumn, and Magali became interested, too. When the opportunity to attend a conference to learn how to lobby in D.C. arose, they all jumped at the chance.
“I’m not in political science — I’m a psychology major — but I was still interested in understanding the legislative process, [seeing] what the sessions looked like, and giving a different perspective in the room because I’m an international student,” says Shruthi, who is from India and is co-president of Beloit Student Government. “Immigration policies directly affect international students. Though we’re not officially undocumented, that’s only until our graduation date; after that, we go into the process of undocumentation. Hearing stories and understanding the climate that we live in was my purpose.”
The D.C. conference, hosted by FCLA during Beloit’s spring break, included all-day discussions and training sessions about the art of lobbying. The quintet talked to DACA recipients, law professors, human rights campaign organizers, and politicians. Martu was shocked to learn about the very contemporary examples of racial and religious discrimination in the American immigration system, citing the discrepancy in treatment between Ukrainian refugees and those from countries like Afghanistan and Yemen. Autumn paid close attention to the anti-Black immigration policies that are often hidden from the public eye. Stories about immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean don’t gain much national attention.
The sessions emphasized the power of persuasive storytelling, which became extremely important when the Beloiters had the chance to talk to the aides of Wisconsin Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin.
“I don’t know what I was expecting when I walked through those doors,” says Shruthi. “Nobody was a bad person. These were people who were willing to learn. We had interesting conversations.”
Veeka’s biggest takeaway from the trip was realizing how accessible young people are to their representatives — and, as a result, to making change they want to see at the local and national levels. “Everyone can lobby,” she says. “Senators want to hear from regular people, people who experience issues, so they know what their people really want when they’re elected. While I personally don’t want to go into politics, I want to have my voice heard and I want my senators and legislators to represent me.”
When the students returned, they led a panel during Weissberg week about their experiences and were encouraged to find that a number of students were interested in learning more about civic engagement.
“Where it starts is with the younger people,” Autumn says. “The more the merrier — that’s how we can get stuff accomplished.”
Martu, an international relations and environmental studies major from Liberia, is interested in a career in international human rights law. She was motivated to lobby for immigration after learning extensively though her Beloit classes about the millions of undocumented people in the United States. “Undocumented immigrants contribute a lot to this nation,” she says. “These people just want to live to their full potential. They’re not getting the fair share that they need.”
Autumn, a sociology and hopeful theatre major from Milwaukee, remained calm and collected during what others may consider a tense and important conversation. “I’m a public speaker and a performer, so I don’t mind that. Even if we would have been lobbying for the senators [directly], I would have felt confident and empowered, but it was even more low-stakes and comfortable because we talked to their aides, and they were young [like us]. It was really nice.”