Angelica Salas in her office at CHIRLA
Angelica Salas in her office at CHIRLA
Danny Liao

Angelica Salas: The Immigration Advocate Defending American Families

"Undocumented status should be temporary and change to something more permanent for everyone," Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), says during an interview in the organization's Westlake office. "That's why we are fighting for a permanent immigration solution."

It's a principle born of personal experience. Before obtaining a green card and eventually citizenship, Salas was an undocumented child whose family was torn apart by immigration politics. Then, as a history major at Occidental College, delving into immigration, race relations and Latin America, Salas had an epiphany: "This isn't just about my family, it's really about a system."

While her post-graduation trajectory was bound for the Northeast — grad school at Yale and, she recalls with a hint of humor, a man she loved at Princeton — the brewing battle over California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 inexorably drew her to CHIRLA as a volunteer.

"I remember thinking I would stay one more year [at CHIRLA]," she reflects. "But as everything fell into place, I decided to stay — one of the best choices of my life."

While Salas is an impassioned orator, she's resolute in preferring to raise resources for the community rather than running for office. AB 60, a law that gives the undocumented access to driver's licenses, is a point of particular pride — and not just because it took a decade of perseverance and politicking. In many respects it embodies Salas' ethos: grassroots legislation that offers some security in police interactions and an economic and social resource for millions daily. It's one more plank in a nationally scalable policy framework that integrates immigrants into mainstream America.

In her 23-year tenure at CHIRLA, Salas has prioritized identifying and investing in "today and tomorrow's community leaders." In fact, "The organization's leaders today are the immigrant youths I met 10, 15, maybe even five years ago," she declares proudly.

There have been challenges. Salas was onstage in MacArthur Park on May Day 2007 when the LAPD, truncheons swinging and rubber bullets flying, drove out demonstrators. Despite crediting it as a learning experience for all parties, there's no mistaking the terror and anger she felt that day as she vividly describes being unable to locate her stepson in the chaos.

Perhaps the most significant challenge, however, has been the "absolutely adversarial" nature of Donald Trump. "The campaign was horrible because of how he targeted immigrants," she says with disgust.

A "boisterous" Election Night celebrating the "amazing job" California did in terms of low-propensity voter turnout (demographics such as Latinos and the less affluent) was met by the quiet pain of hundreds of assembled volunteers and staff who were realizing the impending harm that could be visited on vulnerable communities.

Salas recalls addressing the shell-shocked audience. "The power we have, it's in our families and communities, and we have to muster everything good about who we are to defend ourselves from this."

And defend the community CHIRLA has. It set up the Los Angeles Raids Rapid Response Network to mitigate the damage of stepped-up immigration enforcement by visiting and assisting detainees and keeping their loved ones informed, among other resources. It also tripled its legal services staffing, which offers help with everything from the citizenship process to applying for DACA, regardless of ability to pay.

To the immigrant community, the state and the country, Salas has a simple message: "CHIRLA is going to be with you. We're going to fight, we're here and won't back down. We're going to defend our families."

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