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Facing Drumbeat of Anti-Immigrant Policies, Activists Struggle to Put Themselves First

Self-care and balance have become more important than ever for people fighting the Trump administration’s attempts to limit immigration and increase deportations.

You can’t fight injustice when you aren’t taking care of yourself first, activists say.   Photo: William Camargo

Reverend Jose Landaverde celebrated Christmas in the hospital. He had spent 14 days drinking only water and eating no food before he nearly collapsed inside his church in suburban West Chicago.

The 46-year-old immigration activist spent three days at Stroger Hospital recovering from the hunger strike, of which he’s done seven over the last five years to fight for improved living conditions for undocumented immigrants in Illinois. This past holiday season, he was trying to convince Illinois Representative Peter Roskam to oppose President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status programs—a decision that could result in the deportation of thousands of immigrants.

Under the current administration, Landaverde and other immigration activists say their work has a deep sense of urgency. Trump has used his executive powers to crack down on undocumented immigrants and limit legal immigration since he took office last January.

Landaverde is diabetic and since he was diagnosed it’s become more difficult to go days—even weeks—without food, while trying to regulate his glucose levels. His doctor urged him to stop doing hunger strikes, he says, but he remains undeterred.

“I feel the responsibility to put my life on the line for the struggle,” says Landaverde, who is a survivor of the brutal civil war in El Salvador.

The first year of the Trump administration has been a time of outrage after outrage among community organizers who focus on immigration issues. From the “travel ban” to the DACA decision to increased focus on deportations, immigration activists in Chicago say they are re-assessing how much time and energy to invest into the movement while taking care of themselves and their day-to-day needs.

It’s a tough challenge, activists say: How do you balance your personal needs with a movement that aims to secure the civil rights of millions of undocumented immigrants?

“We need to reframe the idea that you’re willing to die for your community, but rather, thinking what it means to live for your communities,” says David Stovall, professor of African-American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Stovall has extensively studied and written about efforts by Mexican American and African American activists in Little Village and North Lawndale, respectively, who used hunger strike tactics to fight for educational funding.

Stovall, who has a background in community organizing, says activists who are sacrificing themselves in the movement should think about their work differently. Sacrificing for a cause can actually shorten the work activists do because of burnout and other untreated physical and emotional problems, he says.

Yaxal Sobrevilla, a DACA recipient and an activist with Organized Communities Against Deportation, agrees that people need to seek balance.

“There’s a sense of urgency. There’s pressure, even within yourself, to organize,” says Sobrevilla, 25, who has been advocating for undocumented immigrants for six years. “Change doesn’t happen immediately. It’s a long process. There are wins and you celebrate those but there’s a lot of lucha [struggle] left.”

It’s unclear what will happen to DACA recipients like Sobrevilla, who are waiting on Congress to make a deal on the program that Trump rescinded last year. Sobrevilla migrated to Chicago at four years old from Mexico City; her work permit expires in November, and that uncertainty has made her think strategically about her physical, emotional, and financial well-being.

She says she has been saving up and building her network to ensure she has alternative ways to make money if she’s unable to renew her work permit. Though the pressure grows by the day, she says she still takes time away from social media and tries to take care of her own needs first.

“You have to be willing not to burn out quickly,” she says. “It’s important for us to be well and healthy because it’s part of our fight.”

What’s the best way to do that? It depends on each individual, says Judith Cook, director for the Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy for the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Burnout is very personal,” she says. “People may feel anxious, guilty, angry, and even physical pain. Many can’t sleep and they may begin to isolate themselves.”

She adds that it’s more than just a bad day or a bad week, but rather, when bad feelings persist over time and even victories feel numb. Those experiencing these symptoms should take time to assess their feelings and set up a strong support system.

“Everyone needs to have a community they feel safe and they can connect with,” Cook says. “Sometimes the community you need can also turn around and make demands that keep you from being healthy.”

She suggests that activists keep a “wellness toolbox,” a mental list of activities, meditation, and other things to help de-stress.

For Leone Bicchieri, that means spending time with his children and unplugging from organizing and the news. Bicchieri, 54, has been a community activist for almost three decades, and he says his activism came before anything—even his personal life. He had his first child when he was 50 years old.

“The movement has always been my life. It’s all I’ve done,” he says, who took a break from organizing with Chicago Workers’ Collaborative a few years ago.

After college in 1988, he went to Nicaragua with a group to document killings during the civil war and the ways the United States was contributing financially to that conflict.  He was there for two years and during that time he witnessed a lot of tragedies; many of his fellow activists were killed. When he returned to Washington state, he started organizing farmworkers. During that time, he experienced survivor’s guilt and PTSD.

“I remember I worked every second of every day and then I would go home. I gained weight and I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “It just made me unhealthy.”

The sense of urgency is still there, he says, but now he’s learned to balance his work and his health.  Last year, he returned to organizing by creating a nonprofit called Working Family Solidarity. He says he feels healthier and more balanced now.

“I’ve learned the hard way and it took me a while,” he says. “But my kids have stabilized me. It’s a huge help to force me to slow down.”

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