At the age of 11, Julissa Morales, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, stood on the state Capitol steps reciting her speech about her parents’ inability to get a driver’s license and the effect it had on her.
Her parents, Luis and Lorena Morales, had joined the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in PA (MILPA), doing advocacy work in the Harrisburg area, and Julissa quickly followed in their footsteps.
“As a kid, I didn’t even always know what I was talking about, but I wanted to help,” she said.
It’s been five years since her speech, and Julissa is now a 16-year-old senior at Harrisburg High School SciTech Campus. Most recently, she was named one of the two Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition’s (PICC) 2019 Youth Leaders.
Julissa hadn’t even known she was nominated. It was a shock that, out of all the youth across the state, she was chosen. MILPA’s Harrisburg coordinator, Maria Alejandra Hernandez, had nominated her.
But what came as a shock to Julissa was obvious to those from MILPA and PICC who knew her, as she has become so embedded and involved in the community on behalf of immigrants.
“She’s one of those people we need to look at,” said Maria Sotomayor, PICC’s deputy director. “I think she’s going to do big things.”
This year, Julissa joined the Harrisburg City Youth Council and networks with leaders in the community such as City Council members. She also has worked at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center, completing their LISTO program to enhance her leadership skills. She also was involved in the “Familias Separadas” mural.
Last year, Julissa attended the PICC Youth Convening, a weekend-long trip where 30 14- to 24-year-olds across the state meet to develop leadership skills, share their stories and connect with others like them. This is where she met Sotomayor.
“It is important to not just have young people in the front lines, but also making decisions and participating,” Sotomayor said. “Young people hold a lot for their families. Sometimes, we don’t talk about that.”
Julissa displayed the weight she carries as she has often thought, “This could be the last time my dad is coming home.”
Her parents never expected that she would become such a leader. She was always a shy child, but both explained how much they’ve seen her grow.
“Little by little, she started doing little things,” said Lorena, with Julissa translating her mother’s Spanish to English. “It’s really nice to see the young people standing up for things they believe in.”
Although her Capitol speech was five years ago, Julissa is still advocating for all immigrants to have access to driver’s licenses.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 13 states and Washington, D.C., currently allow “unauthorized immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.” In Pennsylvania, to get a license you must have certain identifiers such as a Social Security card or passport—documents some immigrants do not have.
Julissa sees this as especially challenging in central Pennsylvania, where mobility is a necessity.
However, when Julissa protests or participates in an advocacy event, she has a higher goal in mind than just persuasion.
“I don’t want to change your opinion,” she said. “I just want to get you to respect us and our community.”
Julissa attended the PICC Youth Convening again this year and hopes to continue to show people that the youth are not just the future, but the present.
“This is something that has to be done,” she said. “If I don’t, who else will?”