A Kansas-based Dreamer fights for her fellow immigrants

Claudia Amaro survived a lifetime of obstacles to call Wichita her home

Published February 7, 2018 6:58PM (EST)

 (Getty/Spencer Platt)
(Getty/Spencer Platt)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoIn 2013, Claudia Amaro made national headlines as part of the Dream 9, a group of nine undocumented activists from Mexico who demanded to be let into the United States and granted asylum. In 2018, she is making local headlines again for her activism in Wichita, Kansas, the place she considers her hometown.

Amaro was brought to the U.S. from Mexico in 1988, when she was 12 years old, on an expired visa. She says that was the year that her father had been murdered, and her mother, fearing for their safety, brought her four daughters to America for a better life. Seventeen years later, in 2005, Amaro's husband Hector Yaujar was deported. Rather than let her own family be split up, she moved back to Mexico with her son Yamil, who was born in America.

Life in Mexico was difficult for Amaro and her family as they tried to start over. Her son was teased for being an American and having an American accent. Her husband opened a hamburger shop but, according to Amaro, was kidnapped by the authorities who demanded thousands of dollars in exchange for his return. After the experience, Amaro was determined to figure how to get home to the United States.

She wrote to politicians and immigrant groups asking for help. In July of 2013, an immigrant rights group helped Amaro turn herself in to authorities at the U.S. border in protest of the U.S. Immigration law. She was detained with no idea when she would be released. After three weeks, Amaro was released and granted temporary asylum. Her husband Yaujar also requested asylum in 2013 but spent two and half years in detention. He was released in December of 2015, two days before Christmas.

Amaro’s efforts to fight for her family and the country she loves have extended to fighting for all immigrants and the Latino community, especially in Wichita, the city that Amaro adopted after moving there in 1996.

Amaro’s local activism started in 1997. She organized a youth group for Latino youth at St. Mary’s Cathedral that grew to over 300 people, and hosted two international retreats. In 2004, Amaro started a Spanish Newspaper named “Cronos de Wichita” with her husband after noticing that there was no local news in Spanish.

After returning to Wichita in 2013, Amaro picked up her activism again. She sought training from her attorney and others before organizing “Know Your Rights” workshops for immigrants. Amaro also organized DACA clinics to show Dreamers how to fill out the DACA paperwork.

Janice Bradley, a retired teacher who works with the Peace and Social Justice Center of South Central Kansas, met Amaro through activism. Bradley describes Amaro as someone who knows how to make connections and encourages people to take part in civic duties and engagements.

While advocating for her husband’s release, Amaro also spoke at different universities about the challenges immigrants face and the struggles her family has endured. Her story has been featured in several books, including "Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation's Fight for Their American Dream."

“I usually try to motivate [other immigrants] with my own role. With actions [rather] than words. All the work that I do, I do so that they can see it. With my attitudes towards zoning boards, creating new spaces for multicultural awareness, with actions,” said Amaro.

Amaro worked toward melting cultural barriers when she worked as a Family Engagement Educator at a local elementary school. After again noticing a lack of local information in Spanish, she started a weekly nonprofit radio show that invites community members on.

Amaro considers herself a bridge between communities in Wichita and has organized several cultural and educational events with non-profits.

Christina Long, the owner of CML Collective, has worked together with Amaro on a number of entrepreneurship development initiatives like the Create Campaign.

“She was a leading voice in helping us be able to expand our reach from beyond the African American community to help launch and grow stronger businesses and also connect that with the Hispanic and Latino community and we had a great response because of her involvement.” Said Long.

“I have served different boards from the Hunter Health Clinic Inc, The Urban League of Kansas, Wichita Area Sister Cities, WPD Hispanic Advisory board. I have been able to create more cultural awareness,” said Amaro. “Also after different talks, Wichita Police Department agreed to change their policies to treat immigrants with more respect by changing the term 'Illegal Aliens' by 'Undocumented,' a conversation I wish other departments and local media would follow.”

In 2016 the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita was looking to create a Leadership Program in Spanish and asked Amaro to help.

“[Amaro] helped us get that program off the ground and implement it, we really relied on [her] to help us design that program. [She] is a great example of somebody who can exercise leadership without a formal position of authority,” said Shaun Rojas, the Director of Civic Engagement at the Kansas Leadership Center.

Rojas describes Amaro as optimistic and determined, and someone that the Leadership Center wants to encourage further.

“We believe that leadership is mobilizing people to do difficult work and that’s what [Amaro] does and she does in the most effective way possible,” Said Rojas, “She shows people that you don’t need a formal title or position or to be an elected official to talk and try to make progress on tough issues. She’s the epitome of what we believe exercising leadership looks like.”

Amaro also created a campaign called “Kansas Adopt a Citizen” in 2016. The campaign sought to motivate people to vote and for those that can’t vote to motivate their family members to make a difference in the polls. The campaign included several events where volunteers registered more than 200 new voters.  

“I think that everyone, every person, regardless of race, color, religion, anything – we all have power and we need to realize it,” said Amaro. “ For example, my campaign, Kansas Adopt a Citizen — sometimes legislators only see numbers and we don’t count, people that cannot vote but we can have power with our mouths and organizing ourselves. I just want people to know that they have power and we have to start using it.”

Amaro is passionate about creating a better life for those in her community and for people like her son. In 2017, she organized a leadership program called Jovenes Avanzando Juntos for Latino Youth after learning that ESOL programs keep kids away from leadership programs — and often from attending college due to a lack of resources and information.

“I’m driven to make a difference in Wichita because of my love for the community, my love for this city, and a future for my son.” said Amaro. “I want a better future for my son, I want to make sure that he has a better life than me.”

It's a promise that Amaro is working hard to keep. In 2017, she was selected as one of four fellows of the League of Creative Interventionists of Wichita. Her team put on several events in the city to promote inclusion, awareness, and unity. Amaro also started AB&C Bilingual Resources LLC  with two of her sisters to provide interpreting and translation services.

Courtney Bengtson, a friend of Amaro, is impressed not only with Amaro’s ability to bridge communities but also Amaro’s optimism towards life.

“I see her as someone who is willing to step out of her comfort zone and speak with individuals that may not have had the same experiences that she has had to try and make them relatable to people,” said Bengtson.

As immigration reform and DACA continue to make national headlines, Amaro hopes that her efforts will change some hearts and minds. Despite her efforts, the odds that she and her husband will win their asylum request are low. Only a very small percentage of Mexicans are granted asylum.

“I love life and I love being a human. I believe that as a human, I have the right to choose where I want to live. Maybe I can’t choose where I was born, but I can choose where I want to die.”

By LaRissa Lawrie

LaRissa Lawrie is a photojournalist and writer for Salon’s Young Americans. She decided to pursue this fellowship to showcase Kansas as a community rooted in connection and empathy. LaRissa graduated from Wichita State in May of 2017 with a B.A. in Strategic Communication and will return to pursue a Master of Arts in Communication this fall. LaRissa is a lifestyle photographer and co-owner of Modberry Market. She is also a University Innovation Fellow with the Stanford Design School.

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