Luis Guerra ’11 didn’t just study U.S. immigration policy in school or hear about it on the news: it was part of his upbringing.
“I was born about a mile away from the border, on the Mexican side, and my parents moved to the U.S. when I was 5,” he says. “Growing up, I went to school in San Diego and on weekends I stayed with my family in Mexico, but many of my family members couldn’t come back with me across the border.”
Learning the workings of U.S. immigration policies at a young age inspired Guerra to make them better — a passion he pursued through internships and student leadership positions at Willamette University.
Today, at just 24 years old, Guerra is the acting executive director for Causa of Oregon, the largest Latino civil and human rights organization in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s been a really fast transition over the two years since I graduated, moving from an entry-level position at Causa to the top of the organization,” he says. “But I have been able to learn a lot from the people around me. Every time I need an energy boost, that’s about the time someone shares a personal story that reminds me why I do this work.”
Doing It All
Causa’s acting executive director may be young, but he is no stranger to leadership roles.
Guerra first became involved with Causa his junior year at Willamette, organizing a May Day march in support of immigrant rights with more than 200 participants.
During the summer before his senior year, Guerra was awarded a $4,000 grant from the Kemper Foundation Undergraduate Internships program, which allowed him to accept an unpaid internship at Causa. And during his senior year, he interned at Willamette Academy as a Spanish interpreter and translator for parents.
Not only did Guerra make a difference while he was student — by founding WU Causa — he and ASWU President Walter Robinson paved the way for future student activists.
“We wanted to create a space on campus for student activism around social justice issues,” Guerra says. “One week before graduation we got our approval, and then we handed WU Causa over to younger students to get it off and running.”
Immigrant rights activism was just one aspect of Guerra’s Willamette experience; he also found time to excel as a student and athlete.
As an offensive guard for the Bearcat football team, Guerra started in every game during his final three seasons and earned second-team All-Northwest Conference honors in 2009 and 2010.
“Luis was always trying to be original and make things understandable, to find the bigger picture and give it a human context,” says Spanish professor Patricia Varas, who served as Guerra’s advisor and mentor. “Because he is a true analytical thinker, he is able to make connections in a way that will certainly change lives.”
Though balancing his many academic, athletic and community commitments wasn’t easy, Guerra says the experiences taught him valuable life and career skills.
“Life doesn’t just throw one thing at you at a time: you have to be prepared for a broad range of scenarios or situations,” he says. “Willamette’s liberal arts model really prepares you for that.”
After noting Guerra’s determination and initiative as an intern, Causa of Oregon jumped to hire him immediately after he graduated.
He joined Causa as a development associate in July 2011, and within 14 months he was promoted to legal program director.
“Before I was hired, Causa didn’t offer any sort of legal service,” Guerra says. “Causa paid for me to receive immigration law training in Chicago and L.A., which now allows us to organize huge community events to help people with immigration paperwork.”
In April 2013, Causa’s board of directors named Guerra its acting executive director, and with Oregon’s recent passage of tuition equity and driver’s card laws, Guerra says he couldn’t have stepped into the position at a better time.
“Being part of those victories has been amazing because the organization has been working to change those laws for the past decade or so,” he says. “It’s kind of like joining a football team the year they won the championship.”
Causa board member Paul Krissel says the board knew they could count on Guerra to bring out the best in his team.
“We chose Luis because he has demonstrated leadership qualities since the first day he started volunteering for Causa as a Willamette University student, and it was clear that the other staff also saw him as a leader,” Krissel says. “Luis is intelligent and humble at the same time, he is calm under pressure, he understands the importance of building relationships and he inspires excellence by his own example.”
Though his new position primarily consists of meetings, phone calls and webinars to coordinate between national coalitions and local staff, Guerra says his favorite part of the job is meeting one-on-one with community members and working with high school students.
“I remember having speakers come to my high school, and now I get to be on the other side,” he says. “I talk to students about their options: how they can make a change and how they can be the first ones in their family to go to college — just like I did.”
Despite the controversial nature of immigrant rights issues, Guerra thrives as a mediator by finding common ground.
“Regardless of what one’s beliefs are politically, I think we can all agree that families are really important and we should treat all humans humanely,” he says. “By framing it like that, we can start conversations about how we can do things differently.”
Causa was founded in 1995 by farmworkers, immigrants and allies to defeat anti-immigrant ballot measures and advocate for statewide policies that positively affect Latino immigrant communities.
Today, as the largest Latino civil and human rights organization in the Pacific Northwest, Causa works to defend and advance immigrant rights by coordinating with local, state and national coalitions and allies.
• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major