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🎙 Podcast: Supporting Thriving Immigrant Communities with Reyna Montoya and Swapna Reddy

“Aliento is really grounded in that reality that undocumented communities and mixed immigration status families are not only facing hardship, but we have so much hope and so much potential… So what would it look like for us to believe in our immigrant community and to nurture their success for them to thrive regardless of their immigration status?” — Reyna Montoya

Reyna Montoya is a DACAmented social entrepreneur, community organizer, educator, and the founder of Aliento, an organization transforming trauma into hope and action for undocumented and mixed immigration status families through healing initiatives and leadership development. Swapna Reddy is the co-founder and co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a membership-based organization comprised of over 150,000 asylum seekers working to build a more humane asylum system in the U.S.

Tune in to learn how Reyna and Swapna are transforming systems, policies, and practices to support thriving immigrant and asylum-seeking communities.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Reyna:
Hi, Swapna. It’s so good to see you and hear you. It’s been a little while since we have connected in audio. I know that I text you almost every time, but maybe let’s get started with sharing a little bit about like who you are, any titles that carry specific meaning to you. I know you’re super awesome, but maybe for our audience who’s listening out that they don’t know your awesome self, can you share a little bit about you?

Swapna:
Sure! Well, my name is Swapna Reddy. I am one of the four co-founders and two co-executive directors of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project or ASAP for short. I don’t have a lot of titles otherwise that carry specific meaning for me but Reyna, I’m guessing you do. I’d love to hear you introduce yourself as well.

Reyna:
Well, my name is Reyna Montoya. I am the founder and CEO at Aliento which is a nonprofit leadership organization based in Arizona where we transform trauma into hope and action. And something that carries a lot of meaning for me is that I am a daughter. I am a sister, and I am just a human trying to do the best that I can.

So you talked about ASAP, so I’m pretty familiar with ASAP, and I feel pretty lucky about that, but can you share a little bit more about what is ASAP? What is its mission and what it stands for?

Swapna:
So ASAP is the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. We’re a membership organization. Our members are over 230,000 asylum seekers who are now in the United States. But they are people who are coming to the United States from over 185 countries and what we try to do is just be responsive and provide our members with what they’re asking for. Because they’re navigating an incredibly complicated immigration system, a lot of times they are asking for help in understanding the U.S. immigration system, resources that would help them to navigate the system themselves. But they’re also asking to change the system.

And so other things that we do involve giving members kind of the resources and the tools and the opportunities to be able to advocate to change the system either through litigation, press, or policy. But, you know, so much of what we do has changed over time as we’ve learned and made mistakes and also grown to a size bigger than we thought we ever would. And a lot of where we’ve learned things is from you. So, I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about what your organization does.

Reyna:
I’m so inspired every time that I hear about the incredible work that you’re doing. And I think many people would just hear the numbers but every number is a person and they carry specific stories and meanings.

Speaking of that, a little bit about the work that we do at Aliento. Aliento translates into breath but when you give them to someone, it’s like giving words of encouragement. For my bilingual speakers or those who speak Spanish, shout out to you all!

But within that at Aliento, we have a motto that we say that we transform trauma into hope and action. So we work with mixed immigration status families, predominantly young people ages seven to 24. But anyone who has worked with young people, if we really want to be supportive and really support their leadership, we know we have to serve whole families and communities to making sure that they step into their power.

And a lot of the reason why I decided to find Aliento was from my own lived experience of growing up undocumented in a place like Arizona, where it was very, very difficult for the immigrant community to thrive and to be accepted and to be welcomed. And I started organizing when I was in college. I had to face a lot of barriers because of my lack of immigration status– from not having access to in-state tuition, having to fight my dad’s deportation, to constantly having a lot of anxiety and stress.

So at Aliento, it’s really grounded in that reality that undocumented communities and mixed immigration status families are not only are not only facing hardship, but we have so much hope and so much potential and we’re multifaceted individuals. So what would it look like for us to believe in our immigrant community and to nurture their success for them to thrive regardless of their immigration status? So we do a lot of healing initiatives around mental health, leadership development. And we also say that it is not enough to only support families that are going through a lot of hardships, but how do we make sure that we’re changing the systems and the structures that are creating trauma in the first place?

Reyna:
So that’s a huge, like overlap that I see between our work, even though that asylum seekers are very different than mixed immigration status families. Do you see any other overlaps between our work or anything that you have seen that would be helpful for folks listening to understand a little bit deeper?

Swapna:
Yeah, I mean, I think that at the end of the day, asylum seeker is also like a legal definition that may or may not kind of relate to how somebody views themselves or how they want to identify. I think, you know a lot of us, you know, going back to the first question about what are some titles that carry specific meaning to you. It’s not necessarily important to our members that they are asylum seekers or not, or that that’s a way that they’re kind of referred to. And so I’ll just say that I think our communities can be different. They can also be the same. It’s just kind of like people who are looking for some basic dignity and respect and the ability to live in the United States.

Reyna:
They’re human beings, right? And sometimes between legal terms, political rhetoric, and the polarization that we see in our society, we tend to forget that we’re talking about human beings that had to make a very courageous decision to leave the country that they knew for very different circumstances. Sometimes it’s because of escaping poverty. Sometimes it’s escaping the violence, like my dad, who was a victim of a kidnapping in Mexico. And some of them are just seeking their dreams. Right. I think that there’s also another concept, that I know you and I don’t interact a lot, but there’s other folks that migrate because they want to come to a school or a program that they really want, or they have a dream of living in this specific city.

So definitely migration has become very complex because sometimes the government refuses to see people just as who they are, just people and human beings trying to do the best that they can with the resources that they have.

**

Swapna:
What are some of the kind of key, maybe positive memories you have or negative that led you to decide to start your own organization?

Reyna:
Oh, that’s, that’s such a complicated question for me because I wish I could say that there was like, One moment. Right. But I would say that it was more a compilation of moments of constantly feeling that sense of anger. I think that a lot of my decisions at a young age— I founded Aliento when I was 25 because I was really angry. I was angry about the way that people were treating immigrants.

I had been doing community organizing since my late teens at school and something that I kept seeing as a pattern… I kept seeing a pattern that many people wanted my story and they wanted me to share about how I was a dreamer or an undocumented student. And they wanted to hear that story and use it for their own political gain. And then whenever I would provide a solution or my strategy, they never wanted to hear it. They were like, “No, we know what we’re doing. Just stick to your lane.” Right. And then there was this one particular moment of constantly feeling this, I call it now compounded trauma. Right? Like when you have to constantly face that… Yeah. They want a part of yourself but they don’t want your whole self. It can be very traumatic and very disempowering.

So there was one time that I remember I was translating and interpreting for a specific event. And this was way before Aliento. I was actually a classroom teacher at that time. And I remember that there was a lot of undocumented community talking about the deep pains of living undocumented in Arizona and all the injustices that they had to face. And I remember being at that event, translating for moms, for fathers, for children. And I remember feeling the energy so heavy and thinking to myself, people are coming in sharing their deepest traumas and they’re leaving angry.

And I think it was that moment that I didn’t want to be angry anymore. And I wanted to make sure that we were reminded that at the end of the day, we are deserving of healing and we are deserving of the different alternatives where we can not only be storytellers but we can be the strategist of our lives and provide a different alternative with immigrants can be seen with dignity and respect and be nurtured and respected. Rather than constantly be used either for a political agenda to create fear and division, or to just get a specific electorate without getting any results.

So that was a long story and I’m getting a little emotional because I think for me it has been those little moments that have really led me to stay in this difficult work when you get to experience so much pain, but then yet you get to experience so much strength and power. How about you? What led you to ASAP? I mean, you have like, it’s four of you, right? Like four co-founders, like incredible!

Swapna:
It is incredible from a sustainability perspective. They’re also just some of my closest friends. But I will just say, reflecting on your story, that that’s actually something I quote you on constantly in conversations… is kind of your point to that people who are impacted by the immigration system are not just experts in the harm, but they’re experts in the solution as well.

Sorry, I’m getting emotional too, listening to you talk. I think, you know, what makes me passionate about immigration is just that I’m the child of immigrants and my parents didn’t always have the easiest time getting like a life started in the United States. I have three siblings and my parents couldn’t always afford to have us all in the United States together. And so my younger brothers and I have been kind of like separated by continents at times. And in a way that I think has kind of defined everything about how I understand the world and opportunity. And my earliest memories have been memories of kind of feeling of relative privilege of having gotten to be in the United States with my parents when my younger brothers did not. So I think it’s just so fundamental to my worldview, that immigration is just like this massive privilege you can have, or can’t have that can fundamentally change the course of your life and all of the opportunities you have.

You know, when I was in law school, along with my three co-founders, we traveled to volunteer just for a week in the Dilley Family Detention Center, which was then the biggest immigration detention center in the U.S. It was built to hold 2,400 women and children at once. It was obviously just an absurdly inhumane place, and we went down to volunteer and a woman who had been detained with her then seven year-old for over four months was being forced to go to trial.

Her name was Suny Rodriguez, and it was just like the greatest fortune of our life that she happened to be going to trial that week. And we got to meet her. We ended up helping her with her immigration trial. We represented her that week and she was able to win her case.

And at the end of that week, you know, she was released from detention and whereas almost anyone would be like, you know after being detained with your kid for more than four months would kind of want to just leave and put it behind them. She just immediately started asking us what would happen to the other women who were having to go to trial in the weeks following. And kind of, what could we do? Because as far as she had seen, she had been an organizer in the detention center and she had gotten to know a lot of the women and they had been organizing around asking for better conditions.

So she organized, you know, she was an organizer and she advocated collectively for us to try to find ways to continue to provide legal services to the other women who are going to be forced to go to trial. And we listened and we did represent everyone or make sure that everybody after that in the detention center had representation. And they were all able to win their cases. There never was a moment at which we decided we should start an organization but because of Suny we decided to do this work. And once it got big enough, we realized it was an organization so that’s what brought us to today.

Reyna:
Wow. That’s so powerful. Shout out to Suny!

Swapna:
I know, we’re still in touch with her. She continues to lead a lot of good decisions at ASAP.

**

Swapna:
I’m curious to hear what one early challenge was. I know those were kind of like how we started down this path of founding Aliento and ASAP. But I’m curious to hear if you have any kind of specific recollections, maybe first of kind of an early challenge, you had to overcome, just in founding Aliento, the organization, and also a success.

Reyna:
Oh, that’s a good question. Very similar to you my dream was never intended to found an organization. I was actually very reluctant to do that. And I remember that one of the earliest challenge came around funding. I didn’t know how to make a budget and do this whole fundraising and how to present it.

And I remember being very intimidated by that aspect, especially with something that is so deeply personal to me about my own traumas and my own ways of moving and learning in the world. But for me, I would say that something that really hurt and that was a personal challenge was one time I was applying for this funding. And I remember that someone bluntly asked me, what would happen to Aliento if I were to be deported? And that was very heavy. It felt very personal because it was personal. But I think that it was challenging not necessarily because it was so personal. And then I felt that they were going to a place of a lot of pain, but it was difficult to hear that because even the people that you think that would back you up, they still don’t understand that the depths of asking such a question or the deep fear and uncertainty, undocumented communities live by every single day. And then they really missed the mark because this has never been about a specific organization or Aliento. It’s been about giving the tools to communities to really advocate for themselves.

And then kind of like on the other side, on the other side, in terms of the successes, I would say that this memory that I constantly go back to… There’s like one early success that I always hold really deeply in my heart is seeing my sister, who at that time was a fifth-grader, who testified in front of a school board in Mesa, Arizona—which all the school board members except one were white. And at that time there was a lot of conversation about what was going to be the protocol for the school to be engaging with ICE. Cause there had been a lot of stories hearing that some teachers had invited ICE agents to read aloud to students as part of like inviting professionals. And students crying in the nurse’s offices because that was very traumatic to see that there’s someone that can separate you from your mom.

So seeing my little sister who was born here in the United States addressing a school board member. And sharing her picture about what family separation does and like putting the question to the board and saying, “Hey, you have an opportunity to ensure that we’re not going to school with fear.” I feel that that was an early success. And it’s like, what would it look like if we could do that to more kids? That we listened to not only their painful moments but also the great amount of agency that creates that they can do something about it.

Swapna:
That’s awesome. That’s very sweet and impressive.

Reyna:
How about you? What are some of your memories about those early challenges and early successes of ASAP?

Swapna:
I’m getting so caught up in your stories that it’s sad when it’s my turn to talk. But an early challenge at ASAP, I think, you know— that’s actually one thing that really stuck with me from our very first Echoing Green convening. This is both an early challenge and I’m not sure I have learned to solve the problem is just feeling like this kind of imposter syndrome or like the confidence that you’re supposed to have to like make the asks of what you need to make the work possible.

And I remember at a convening, I believe it was Laura Weidman Powers who was one of the co-founders of Code 2040, who spoke to us in our cohort. And said something about how at the point at which people apply to Echoing Green, the women who apply have done a far greater amount of work relative to the amount of funding they’ve received, and the men have received just a lot more funding for the same work. Which is not really a knock on men as much as just a reflection of the fact that I think some of us get caught up in this belief that we kind of need to do the work first and then figure out how to get paid for it. Like, prove that we can do the work and that we’re worth funding or something. And then try to get funded kind of after the fact. And I think that that’s an early challenge of what ASAP experienced that we were kind of always doing work far out ahead of what our budget was. And, you know, it’s been a challenge along the way to figure out how to dial back from a lot of volunteer and unpaid labor by ourselves and others into a world in which you try to constrain growth by your ability to create good jobs. It’s complicated.

And then I think an early success—I don’t know. I mean, I think, I just feel like maybe the value of anytime something measurably improves for any ASAP member. As we know from our own families’ stuff, it’s just incredibly fulfilling, just to even know there’s one family that can work because of stuff that ASAP members have collectively advocated for. Because that’s a lot of the difference between my brothers being able to live in the United States or not—was just economic stability, you know.

**

Swapna:
We both said early on, you know, we struggled with budgets. We struggled with making some asks with fundraising. I’m curious if you have picked up any tricks now—you said five years later but it feels like you’ve been in this game for over a decade— that have helped you navigate the world of philanthropy, donors, and funders.

Reyna:
Technically we’re giving an opportunity to philanthropy to remedy so much of the damage that they have created as well. And then there’s good people out there that really want to do right to communities that have been harmed. You know, I’m a teacher at heart. I was a teacher once and I will always be a teacher. I will walk with you in the journey, if you still might want to learn about the immigrant community, you might not have the right language or the right approach, but you have that curiosity and that humility, like I’ll walk with you.

There’s a big difference between that versus certain funders that are just there for the media hits or they’re just there to have a checkmark on their equity and inclusion box. And I think that it’s been important for us to understand that, yes, we need the funding to survive and to continue to do our work, but it is important who we are in partnership with.

Swapna:
What you were saying really spoke to me, and sometimes it’s just as important, like the funding you don’t go after or that you don’t try to win as it is the funding that you do. And I think that that can be because of values misalignment like you were talking about, but it can also be about like– kind of like strategic creep or like, you know, things that force you to do certain kinds of programming over others.

And I think one of the biggest things that we’ve learned over time at ASAP is to just like really, if we want to be truly responsive to our members and we want to be able to kind of like change course to reflect what they’re asking us for, then we need to seek out funding sources and funders who trust us enough, that if our members change course, we can change course for our programming as well. And that’s not a problem for the funding that we’ve received or our ability to get future funding.

Another thing that we’ve just realized along the way was that, in order to be truly responsive to our members, we have to let our members, chart our course and change their minds as human beings and take in different factors of what’s happening in the world and then redetermine what they think ASAP should be doing. And that means sometimes we need to tell funders, we were planning to do one thing and then shift gears to do another thing in order to follow our members’ preferences. And so one thing I think that’s been really important, we’ve realized over time, is to get funders who believe in what we’re doing so much, that they’re willing to invest in the organization and in the concept of member leadership as opposed to specific courses of programmatic action because that’s kind of what it takes to be able to actually listen to our members.

**

Reyna:
Shifting a little bit of gears, Swapna. Oh, I’m even afraid of asking this question. It’s in a big pickle, I would say. But can you share maybe with our audience that are not— that don’t follow immigration policy and law and culture so closely like us. Can you name a specific trend or innovation in the field that is supporting asylum seekers that either worries you and maybe another one that excites you or makes you feel really proud?

Swapna:
Sure. I think one thing that worries me is that it’s almost like a desensitization to inhumanity or something. I think that. Well, first of all, everything that was ever kind of horrifying about the Trump administration happened to some degree during every administration, Democratic and Republican proceeding it. But I do think that the media coverage and the scale of what was going wrong was so great that the public really started to take notice and started to really care and take action. I mean, there were thousands of people going to airports to try to be helpful related to immigration, et cetera. Shout out also to another Echoing Green Fellow Becca Heller for IRAP doing a lot of work related to organizing the public around immigration atrocities.

But I just think that there’s just been such a huge amount of desensitization to the fact that some, a lot of the same things are still happening. A lot of those policies are still on the books or the current administration is defending a lot of those policies in court. And that means that we’re likely headed without action from people like Reyna towards the world in which that’s just the new normal and the shock value of things like family separation has passed. And so that’s obviously worrisome.

What excites me is that I do think that, due to things like technology remoteness—I am definitely not like a tech evangelist in general or something. But due to the ability of people to kind of like congregate and organize online and in other ways I do think that there are becoming these incredibly sophisticated connected groups of people, whether they are immigrants who are advocating to change the immigration system or youth advocating to change things about their education systems. Or, you know, just I do think that there’s just kind of like this massive sometimes even like international, definitely national organizing that’s happening that sometimes gets belittled I think by people who like don’t understand that social media activism can actually have like real-world strong impacts and can connect people and form bonds and make relationships that will change things.

And so I feel pretty excited about that. I mean, for ASAP specifically, you know, there are now 230,000 asylum seekers who can kind of like collectively decide what changing the asylum system should look like, what should the priorities be, and can kind of work together to change it. And that’s pretty amazing because I think that, even if many people can get desensitized to harm that people feel, rarely can people who’ve experienced it themselves become desensitized to the harm. And so you know, I’m just excited that there are larger and larger groups of people who will continue to fight no matter what. But, I’d love to hear, Reyna what you think. And I know you’re much more always abreast of immigration policy developments than I am.

Reyna:
Honestly, I’m in the same boat as you. I think that you talked about the desensitization that happens within communities, but I mean I constantly see… I would say I’m trying not to get angry here. But with that, I think that anger actually, anger is not a bad emotion. It’s a powerful emotion and I think that it calls people to action. But at the same time, it be really tricky and dangerous because it’s not sustainable. So when I think about what worries me the most is the hypocrisy of the duality of just understanding that Republicans are bad Democrats are good. I think that that’s so damaging for the immigrant community. Because as you mentioned, I mean there’s this lack of awareness that both parties can really harm the immigrant community.

And on the other hand, what gives me a lot of hope is as you mentioned, our young people are so powerful and they have so much energy. And there has been people that have refused to turn a blind eye and decided that, “Hey, like injustices are still happening to the immigrant community.” I feel that in a place like Arizona, that we were known as the epicenter of hate for the immigrant community, that we saw a huge victory coming out of the state legislature where there was bipartisan work. And a lot thanks to our students at Aliento that continue to advocate regardless of the challenges.

And we were able to work with Arizona state legislature to refer to the ballot the ability for undocumented students to have in-state tuition in Arizona. So I feel that we’re seeing that places like Arizona, if we work together and we build coalitions and we listen to impacted communities, like our undocumented students and dreamers. Like we can turn that epicenter of hating to an epicenter of hope where lessons can be learned and that we’re not giving up, regardless of the challenges that we face.

Swapna:
Yeah, it really is really incredible what you all have been able to accomplish in a kind of under-resourced and really tough environment, but it does, it does exactly what you’re saying. It shows that you know, it’s like the problem is not too big to start solving it like anywhere. So it’s pretty amazing.

**

Swapna:
I guess one of my last questions for you is, I’m curious… Maybe we have a similar answer, but in a perfect world, if your work was over and your mission was accomplished, what would the world look like to you?

Reyna:
Oh, ending with the hard question, Swapna. I think for me, in an ideal world is that every single human being will be nurtured and supported by community and not be judged by their immigration status. And their possibilities and opportunities wouldn’t be limited. And more than anything, I would say that we’re living in a world where we’re not numb to each other’s suffering and we respond with empathy and with care. And instead of seeking punishment and more suffering, we are working collectively to make the world a brighter and better place for all people, regardless of where they were born. How about you? What would a world look like if you were to accomplish your mission and be done?

Swapna:
I mean, I think this actually goes full circle back to like the communities we serve are different and aren’t, you know. I think that I couldn’t have stated it better but the goal you stated, I think is exactly what I would be hoping for and honestly you’ve left me feeling inspired. Just like listening to you dream about what could be possible.

**

Swapna:
For other people who are listening and feeling inspired by you Reyna, I’m curious if you would share how they can learn more about your work.

Reyna:
Yeah. If you’re feeling inspired and you want to continue to support the immigrant community, I would definitely encourage you and invite you to go and check us on our social media. We are on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. You can go to our website and find all of our social media there. And you can go to www.alientoaz.org.
There’s no small action that doesn’t help our work from maybe not going to Starbucks once a month and donating $5 to support our students and our families to just sharing the content about the ongoing changes that happened with immigration or resources for communities for them to thrive. So definitely check us out.

We’re just really excited to being in community. And we’re not only in Arizona, we actually have expanded our program virtually. We have served families and communities across 44 different states. And we’re just so lucky to be part of their journey and always taking Arizona as a huge inspiration that hopefully inspires other folks of turning something painful into a place of hope.

I know that I was inspired by you. I didn’t know about Suny. I’m going to be praying for Sunni after this is over and just sending her a lot of energy. But how can people get connected with ASAP if they’re feeling inspired and they want to maybe support your work, how can they get connected with you?

Swapna:
You can check out our website at www.asylumadvocacy.org and like Reyna said, if you’d like to connect with us on social media, we’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… I’m always thinking we should launch a Tik Tok account but we’re not there yet.

Reyna:
We also have a Tik Tok!

Swapna:
Nice. Yeah. I would assume Aliento was ahead of the game as usual in connecting with people on social media, but you know, we’d love for you to visit www.asylumadvocacy.org especially if you are somebody who is thinking about applying for asylum, not sure if you should apply for asylum, or are already in the system. We’d love for you to visit www.asylumadvocacy.org/members and fill out an application.

It’s always just really, really nice to have a reason to talk to you, Reyna. Thanks for making time to talk to me today.

Reyna:
Thank you for making time. It’s always so good to hear your voice.

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