In the News

Local Trans Latina Activist Targeted By Cyber Bullies Amid Campaign To Out Undocumented Immigrants

Friday, February 3, 2017
RACHEL SADON
RaeAnn Roca Pickett Phone: 202-621-1409 Email: raeann@latinainstitute.org

This article was originally posted on http://dcist.com/

For months, Catalina Velasquez has had a tweet pinned to the top of her page: "As a Trans undocumented Latina I dont have the privilige of separating my immigration status, ethnicity, & trans identity from my #Feminism."
All of a sudden, last week, people started responding to it—announcing that they were reporting her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, amid a slew of other hateful comments.
Velasquez has received threats online before, but nothing on the scale of the attacks she saw on social media accounts in the last week. She describes the uptick as "exponential." Then a stranger showed up to her apartment building, "looking for the trans woman who lives here."

In a deeply fraught and fearful time for many Americans, Velasquez has more to worry about than most. "When I get attacked, I get attacked for being an immigrant, a woman, a transgender person, and a Colombian. Intersectionality couldn't be more relevant at this point in my life," she says.

As a communications professional and an advocate, Velasquez is deeply accomplished. In addition to consulting for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the AFL-CIO, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, she is an appointed Commissioner for the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs and has served on Senator Bernie Sanders' policy committee for LGBT issues. Last year, Rolling Stone named her one of 16 young Americans shaping the election (disclosure: I know Velasquez from college).

"I’m a very public, visible policy and community leader for different causes—from immigration to LGBTQ rights to reproductive justice—and I have been very vocal in expressing the concerns and fears and needs of the immigrant community," Velasquez says. "What we often forget is that with great visibility comes a lot of risk and a lot of threats to people’s safety and security."
She was one of several prominent activists targeted on 4chan, an anonymous online forum, in at least two threads last week encouraging trolls to collect information about people who use the Twitter hashtag "UndocumentedUnafraid."

"You complain about SJWs? these are SJW and you get rid of them! ACT NOW," one anonymous user wrote.

In another thread, someone posted Velasquez's Twitter account and two others, writing that they were people who would "take the bait" to "tweet about it and trap the other illegal aliens to tweet publicly stand up for their crime." It appears that this is what led a slew of white supremacists to bully Velasquez online.

She warns that "this is what happens when we normalize hate speech and normalize hate politics and normalize 'alternative facts.'"

Activists noticed the plot and have since encouraged people to take down tweets that use the hashtag and disable location settings.

Previously, #UndocumentedUnafraid was used for people to "share their stories and humanize the narrative around immigration," Velasquez says. Now, hateful bullies "have identified that as an opportunity to take names and target undocumented immigrants and put us on blast for ICE for raids, for persecution, but, most importantly, for hate."

She's tried not to dwell too much on the comments, instead blocking people on Twitter and other social media platforms. But then things got even scarier when a person showed up in the lobby of her apartment building, asking neighbors for the "trans woman who lives here." When someone alerted Velasquez, she burst into tears—fearful of both this stranger and calling the police.

It's not entirely clear if it is related to the recent online attacks, as the person left without finding her, but the incident left Velasquez deeply unsettled. "Obviously this isn't a person I know—I have a name," she says. After meeting with a cybersecurity consultant, she speculates that someone may have gotten her address from a resume posted to her private LinkedIn page.

The incident and online targeting has taken a toll on her mental health, compounding her already heightened anxiety since the election.

"This person put my information on areas [of the internet] that attract white supremacists," she says. "I am right now alone in this country, and all I can do to eat and have a roof over my head is work and this person is threatening that."

Velasquez is also one of the more than 700,000 people currently able to work legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program—but the program's fate is currently in Donald Trump's hands. The president has said he will announce a plan within a month, according to the Associated Press. On the possibility of being deported to her Colombia, Velasquez says "it would be a death sentence."

But despite the threats and fears, she's not backing down from what she calls life-saving work.

"It's frightening, but this is the thing: every day I walk with a target on my back," she says, deriving strength right now from the cross-section of Americans resisting Trump's politics. "I’m feeling positive about the fact that people are standing up and fighting back, and all the energy that is coming out of cross-movement solidarity work."

And so she remains just as committed as ever to fighting for immigrant, reproductive, and trans rights. "I send that message back to my community of hope and resilience and power."