Lead Organizer, Student Immigration Movement
• Princeton Prize in Race Relations 2012 Achievement Award
• Consulate of Mexico 2015 Certificate Achievement Award
by April M. Crehan
Cairo Mendes still remembers the day he arrived in the US at 9 years old.
“We were at the airport and my dad looks at me and says we’re going to be living here undocumented,” he recalled.
“I kept it secret for many, many years. For my childhood and my middle school years and my early high school years it wasn’t a problem.” But as his friends began to apply for jobs and get driver’s licenses, the reality of his status hit.
“I started spiraling down a really dark path,” he said. One of his friends who was also undocumented found out he was going to be deported and committed suicide. His parents separated and his dad self-deported back to Brazil.
“It was really difficult to just be here, to be present, to really care,” he said. “That’s when I heard about the Dream Act.”
In 2010, Mendes skipped school to attend his first protest. There, he told 300 strangers about his immigration status.
“It felt liberating,” he recalled. “It just felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
That was the moment that launched his organizing work with the Student Immigration Movement.
“I just want to keep people informed and organized as much as possible,” he said.
Now 24, Mendes is thinking about taking a short break from organizing to recharge before assuming a new leadership position.
“This work takes a lot out of you emotionally--you’re not just organizing the community, you’re actually being impacted by these policies,” he said. “I want to take some time to just reflect a little bit.”
Mendes is hopeful that he can return to political action and help build a more intersectional wave of new leaders.
“Ii want them to make this movement bigger in a way that is inclusive of a lot more people than it is now,” he said, talking about the multiple identities members of SIM carry.
“At a time like this where the political climate is like this, movements need to have new leadership with new energy.”
Mendes also hopes the movement can reframe the conversation around dreamers, whom media often portray as victims of their parents’ choices, pitting the generations against one another.
“How do we switch that narrative?” he asked as he talked about the vision people like his mother and father had when they brought their children into the US. “Our parents were the dreamers.”