Just over 10 million people were living in the U.S. without legal immigration status in 2017. Tens of thousands are young people who received temporary protection through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) after being brought to the country as minors.
And as the fate of that program remains uncertain, the issues being analyzed at a policy level are the same ones impacting lives around the country in real time. At Forbes' 30 Under 30 Summit in Detroit last month, Arizona State University alumna and DACA recipient Reyna Montoya asked the audience to consider a basic commonality we all share.
“There are thousands and thousands of children who are looking for our leadership today, and you have a choice within you to remember that they are human beings too, people like you, who breathe the same fresh air,” Montoya said. “I want to challenge you to take a moment to slow down, and breathe with me.”
Montoya was one of more than 200 keynote speakers at the October summit, the latest in a list of recognitions for her activism and humanitarian work over the years. This fall, her growing legacy will also be honored with an induction to The College Leaders. And she’s intimately familiar with immigration issues that she’s addressing as a community organizer today.
She was 13 when her family fled violence in Tijuana, Mexico, for Mesa, Arizona. Growing up undocumented, she remembers facing challenges in everything from enrolling in school to finding a job.
Despite the hurdles, she graduated with dual degrees in political science and transborder studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a minor in dance in 2012.
DACA was enacted that same year, carving out new education pathways for Montoya and other recipients. She now holds a master’s degree in secondary education from Grand Canyon University and recently completed an executive education program through the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
But DACA did not quell the fear and uncertainty that families of mixed immigration status still faced. Montoya’s drive to help fill that gap led her to found Aliento in 2016, a nonprofit providing art and healing workshops, educational outreach and leadership training to students and families touched by immigration issues in Arizona.
The work earned her recognition on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurship and a Muhammad Ali Spirituality Award in 2018. Most recently, she was chosen as a finalist for the Greater Phoenix Chambers' ATHENA Awards for outstanding Valley businesswomen. And on the ground, Aliento has continued to grow.
Today, the organization hosts community building and resilience initiatives including a youth fellowship program, outreach to local middle and high schools and the creation of Aliento at ASU, a student-run club on the Tempe campus.
Driving change through youth leadership
Montoya said returning to Forbes as a speaker felt like a chance to talk not just about Aliento’s growth, but about the DACA program and its recipients at large.
“It was very humbling to be asked to go back and speak, and it's validating to see that the contributions of DACA recipients are being recognized by a place like Forbes,” Montoya said. “The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments around DACA in November, days after the summit, so I wanted to educate people about what Dreamers go through and invite them to invest in youth leadership by supporting organizations like Aliento.”
Since its founding, Aliento has helped DACA and undocumented students as young as 14 advocate for themselves to representatives at the Arizona State Capitol, and hosted seminars where families can learn more about immigration policy. To Montoya, those initiatives speak to the empowerment platform her organization is based upon.
“I think often we hear that millenials are the do-nothing generation, but I have witnessed the opposite,” she said. “I have seen young people of all ages getting involved in leadership and investing in not just their growth as individuals, but also that of the community.”
Aliento is also involved in impacting immigration policy in other ways. Earlier in October, the group appeared on an amicus brief alongside 165 universities, including ASU, urging the Supreme Court to uphold DACA.
“At the end of the day, higher education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background,” she said. “That’s why it filled me with so much pride to see my alma mater being willing to support DACA students in that way.”
Montoya originally created Aliento to give mixed-immigration-status families, students and young people the tools to navigate many of the higher education and immigration challenges she faced alone.
“I’m a firm believer that once you’re educated, no one can take away those skills and that knowledge from you,” she said. “Going to ASU, I was able to build relationships and challenge my own thinking. All of that helped me understand who I am and what I am worth — that's something I’d encourage anyone to fight for.”
As the organization continues to grow, she said some of the best reminders of its impact come from some of the youngest people it serves.
“The other day, we were at a local elementary school supporting fifth- and sixth-grade students, and one of them told me after that our workshop on identity made her feel proud to be Mexican,” Montoya said. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future hearing that we’re helping young students in that way — I didn't always have that growing up, so creating a place where they feel their voice matters is to me the best impact we can make at Aliento.”