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Dream Act Rising

Immigrant youth find their voice in movement for the American Dream



In April 2009, a recent UCLA grad appeared on CNN in a suit and tie to urge passage of the Dream Act. He spoke about escaping Argentina with his family just before a major economic collapse, growing up essentially American and graduating from the University of California-Los Angeles. CNN anchor Heidi Collins did not disclose his last name, but Matias Ramos was already a well known proponent of the Dream Act and this was the most public coming out yet for a young, undocumented American.

“When my parents decided to come to this country, they told me ... that we wanted to be in a place where we could work hard and be rewarded, and that is what the United States has historically been,” Ramos said on national television. “We really want the Dream Act to let us be a part of society, like we feel like we have been all our lives.”

Since that interview a year and a half ago, hundreds of undocumented students—perhaps a thousand—have gone public with their immigration statuses, whether telling a teacher or trusted friend, declaring it from a podium at a rally or speaking to elected officials and reporters about the difficulties they face after high school.

“First you feel all alone, then you feel like other people have your back,” Ramos told BW recently, as Congress headed back into the lame duck session, expected to bring the Dream Act to a vote again. Ramos said that the human side of the immigration debate was too easily ignored until undocumented youth started speaking out. “The voice of the student in asking for the Dream Act has really changed that,” he said.

At least seven versions of the Dream Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, have been introduced to both the House and the Senate since 2001. A new version, S. 3992, introduced yesterday, made some significant changes. The Dream Act would grant provisional visas to young people who were brought to the United States as children (under 16), have lived here for five years, have or will graduate from American high schools, and who already have or plan to attend college or join the military. These students and soldiers would also have to demonstrate that they have “good moral character.” Under the new version of the bill introduced Tuesday to garner more Republican support, the provisional visa would last 10 years, rather than six, as originally proposed. If they complete two years of study or military service during that decade, the Dreamers, as they now call themselves, would be able to apply for permanent resident status and eventually citizenship.

A seven-year-old study from Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeffrey Passell estimated that 65,000 undocumented teens graduate from U.S. high schools every year. A more recent estimate from the Migration Policy Institute shows that about 2.1 million people would qualify for the conditional Dream Act visa, but that only about 825,000 would be likely to meet the requirements in the end.

Most of these Dreamers are found in states like California and Texas, with large immigrant populations. But there are Dream students in every nook and cranny of the country, even nestled in the one-horse town, potato and dairy country of Idaho’s Magic Valley.

In his desire to see the Dream Act pass, one of these students, Aaron, wanted Boise Weekly to use his full name and identify his hometown and high school. Boise Weekly declined to name him because he is a minor and could be put at risk for deportation, but this is his story in his own words:

Inside I want to say I am American. But in reality, I’m not American because of my legal status in the United States. I came here when I was in second grade. I was 7 years old. Now I’m in 11th grade and will graduate in 2012.

When my parents brought me to this country I had no idea we were doing something wrong. I was told that we were finally going to visit my dad, to live with him. Of course, after two years without seeing him, I was very eager to visit. I had no idea what the right/wrong way was. The journey was not like you see it in the movies. We got very lucky that good people crossed us over. All I remember was walking in the desert holding my mom’s arm, my mom carrying my sister in the other arm, and walking in a line of about 15 people. I don’t quite remember how much we walked; the walk wasn’t too bad though. Once in a while people would start freaking out and we ran a few times. Eventually, someone came to pick us up and take us to Idaho.

There are people out there who think people like me are criminals. Is being raised here in Idaho, never getting to know my own mother country a crime? Over the years, I came to love America as my own nation. Pretty soon, without even noticing, I fully assimilated. I learned the language fluently. I followed the rules and laws. I did everything a good American kid does. I rode my bike around, played video games and hung out with friends. If I were to be deported I’d have to start from scratch, having missed a childhood in Mexico. I don’t think I would be able to do it. Deportation would have huge consequences for me, for my friends and family, and for my dream of pursuing higher education.

In 2001, California passed a law that gave undocumented students like Matias Ramos the opportunity to attend state colleges and pay in-state tuition. Congress technically barred in-state tuition for undocumented students in 1996, but California and 10 other states (Oklahoma has since rescinded its law) found a way around the ban by liberalizing residency requirements for all students, a move that the California Supreme Court upheld earlier this month.

In addition to its other provisions, the Dream Act would have lifted the federal ban on offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, allowing states to make their own policies regarding residency and higher education. But the new version of the bill, according to unconfirmed reports at, removes this provision.

As more undocumented students in California entered university in the early 2000s, they gradually found one another.

“Against the odds, students were able to get into places like UCLA and they started meeting each other there … at first it was a really big deal for six or seven undocumented students to be in the same room together,” said Flavia de la Fuente, a U.S. citizen, UCLA graduate and volunteer editor of, a national network of groups advocating for the Dream Act.

Ramos said these meetings were at first more like support groups for undocumented students, who discussed how to fill out paperwork and scholarship options, but the meetings soon evolved into advocacy, and Ramos began to study political organizing.

“Since our lives are on hold basically until Congress takes real action on immigration, then why not be outspoken,” Ramos said.

Ramos became more public about his status around 2007, when a friend’s deportation was publicized. He appeared on panel discussions and spoke to the media as a student who would benefit from the Dream Act. Then he went on CNN.

“You start testing the waters and going up to bigger media markets,” he said.

In early 2010, as pro-immigrant groups grew increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration’s lack of progress on immigration reform, immigrant youth began to organize in earnest.

In February, youth from about 20 states—many of them undocumented—met in Minneapolis to strategize. Encouraged by activists from the Chicago Immigrant Youth Justice League, they planned a national coming out day in March.

“This idea of coming out has been something very powerful for the people we work with,” said Tania Unzueta, a graduate student in Chicago who is also undocumented. Unzueta and the IYJL had coalesced in 2009, fighting the deportation of Rigoberto Padilla an honors student at the University of Illinois-Chicago who was detained after a minor traffic stop. The support of activists and the public attention it brought to the case earned Padilla a one-year stay.

In the process of organizing around Padilla, the IYJL realized that many of the activists who had rallied were also undocumented and so the group offered them a space to tell their stories and to control their own destinies, Unzueta said.

“It always felt like citizens were making the decision about how much undocumented students can risk,” Unzueta said. “Every time the Dream Act becomes mainstream news, the people who tend to dominate the airwaves are still adults and politicians from the national organizations.”

But that changed this past summer as undocumented youth took center stage, successfully demanding that the Dream Act become the first priority for the immigrant rights movement.

My name is Aaron. I live on the outskirts of a small town in Idaho’s Magic Valley, though I lived in Jerome for most of my childhood. I think it was easier on me when I was younger. I didn’t know what being undocumented was, so I wasn’t worried about it. I had other worries then: second grade had to be one of the hardest years. But once I could speak the language, I had no trouble in the rest of elementary or middle school. By the time I entered high school, I was aware of my undocumented status. Nervous run-ins with traffic police, the news that I was not eligible for a driver’s license and the revelation that I would have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to college, if they even let me in, drove that message home. I faced the hardest phase of my life starting in ninth grade. The average teenager only worries about passing their classes and getting ready to graduate, but an undocumented teenager goes through much more.

For example, I wanted to get into some type of after-school club, and maybe a sport, like soccer or track, but because I lacked a license, and I often lacked a ride, I was unable to. In a way, my status even disrupts my ability to learn.

At the end of ninth grade, I found out I had to move to a new town about an hour away. Anyone who has moved before knows how it feels. You feel a lot of loss in your heart. I knew I would be able to see my friends once in a while, and we still stay connected online but it just isn’t the same. This school proved a lot more challenging for me. It’s farther from my house. If I were to walk to school, it would take four to five hours, so I ride the bus. But that means I’m not able to stay after and take advantage of extra help that some teachers offer after school.

Everything in this new hometown of mine is really far. By car, the nearest town takes almost 30 minutes to reach, and the place we do our shopping for food and clothes is about 40 minutes to an hour away. A cop on the road could mean a nightmare to me. They could decide any day to stop us and put us in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And ICE could then decide whether I stay (unlikely) or get deported. They can also decide to put my parents in jail, but since I don’t drive, they can’t do that to me … unless they do it like Arizona, and put everyone in jail just for being here. Being undocumented is my biggest fear, yet I’m living it. It’s my personal nightmare.

In March, undocumented youth marched on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Chicago and eight undocumented students told their stories to the crowd, including Unzueta.

The immigrant youth movement has borrowed inspiration from many earlier civil rights campaigns including the student arm of the civil rights movement, the farm worker rights movement, the gay rights movement of the ’80s and even the type of organizing typified by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

Unzueta, who identifies herself as queer and has studied the gay rights movement, said that coming out—whether in regards to sexuality or immigration status—is a powerful tool for organizing. By revealing their statuses to friends, colleagues, neighbors, politicians and even political opponents, undocumented youth give the public a face to identify with their cause. At the February meeting, there was some hesitation to going public as a tactic on the part of activists from border states, Unzueta said. Not everyone was ready to march up to the ICE building in a T-shirt printed with the word “undocumented” but the coming out actions could be done at various levels.

A University of Utah student who uses the name Ivette Martinez when speaking publicly, revealed her undocumented status in September at a small rally in Salt Lake City outside the federal building.

“I remember the night before I couldn’t sleep and I was really, really nervous,” Martinez said. Martinez is part of the Salt Lake Dream Team, which is made up of mostly undocumented students attending the University of Utah. She recalled that no one had volunteered to provide testimony at the rally, so she raised her hand. Martinez had watched YouTube videos of other students coming out and knew it would be liberating.

“Those were empowering for me because it helped me realize that I’m not alone and there’s other people fighting for me,” she said.

Like many of the Dreamers, Martinez has high hopes. She wants to go to law school and work as a guardian ad litem, advocating for foster kids. Right now she is paying out-of-state tuition in Utah, with some help from private scholarships and a job at a fast food restaurant. Martinez will graduate next year, and while she won’t benefit from the opportunity for in-state tuition, she would be immediately eligible for a provisional visa under the Dream Act, allowing her to legally work and eventually find a path to citizenship.

Aaron would also qualify for a provisional visa and be considered an Idaho resident for purposes of matriculation.

My name is Aaron and I am an American teenager, but don’t have the papers to prove it. I’ve recently started to watch the news more often and research both sides of the immigration debate. After all, the new laws that states are passing might affect me.

One of the major laws that got my attention was SB1070, in Arizona, which basically scares people and allows cops to stop and ask you for ID just because you “look” undocumented. Or in other words, if your skin is brown and you look like you came from another country. Some politicians in my state are planning on introducing a law similar to this. Sometimes it feels as if no matter how good you are, and no matter how hard you try, you’re still a loser to the country’s elected representatives. I was glad when most of the provisions of SB1070 were blocked in court, and I’m glad the federal government and immigrant rights groups were out there ready to oppose it.

There’s always going to be two sides to every story, and in the immigration story, this is also true. There are people out there trying to help undocumented youth, farm workers and other law-abiding immigrants get their papers. These people realize that we want to be able to study here, serve our country and live our lives. There are others who are trying to keep us illegal. This includes the people behind laws like Arizona’s racial profiling bill and also the horrible employers who depend on undocumented workers, who continue to work for less than a documented worker. If suddenly their undocumented workers got papers, they would have to pay them higher wages because no longer will these employers be able to terrorize them with deportation.

As I get closer to graduation, I am starting to think what college I would like to attend. As I do more research and gather information, it feels as if I have reached a dead-end in my future. Since I’m undocumented, the college or university of my choice might not accept me, and if they do, I don’t have the resources to pay out-of-state tuition. I can’t get student loans, and I am not eligible for most financial aid or scholarships. Still, as of today, I’m unsure what I will do in the future.

My dream is to study computers and Internet technology. Since my first computer, I fell in love with technology and have learned a lot about networks. I learned how to build a computer, I learned about operating systems and how they work, I learned about software, I learned how to make websites in html and css, and all of this really drives my interest in higher education. Unfortunately I’m unsure if I will ever be able to achieve this dream.

Though the mere act of declaring one’s undocumented status in public could be considered an act of civil disobedience, the immigrant youth movement stepped it up a notch in May, staging a sit-in at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office. Four of the students were arrested, netting an article in the New York Times. The students wanted McCain to declare his support for the Dream Act, something he had done numerous times before, originally co-sponsoring it and advocating publicly for it. Four more immigrant youth were arrested in November, after a sit-in at McCain’s Capitol Hill offices.

Unzueta joined the May sit-in in Tucson but was not arrested. In July she was arrested protesting at the U.S. Capitol with 20 other activists. She was held in leg irons, detained overnight and is currently on probation.

None of the Dream-eligible students who have been arrested in Dream Act actions have faced deportation—one ICE official told the Washington Post that they do not act on every case that is referred to the agency.

“When we got arrested in Washington, D.C., I think the police were confused,” Unzueta said. The police, Unzueta surmised, were unclear as to why the students, dressed in caps and gowns, lacked identification—we’re undocumented, she says—and for what cause they sought redress.

“Every time we’ve done an action like this we know there is a risk of deportation,” Unzueta said. But the activists who risk arrest know that there is a national network, skilled in the use of traditional and social media, direct action and lobbying, ready and willing to rally to their cause.

De la Fuente, of, said that ICE is fully aware that it does not look good to deport young people who grew up in the United States who want to contribute to society. Many Dream activists are valedictorians, future doctors and lawyers and prominent members of their local communities.

“The more out people are the easier it is for us to protect them,” she said. “If you are out and we know about you and you get involved, somebody is going to miss you.”

Indeed, just last month, the student body president at Fresno State University publicly declared his undocumented status after pressure from the campus newspaper, and Dreamers rallied to his cause. Miami Dade College student body president Jose Salcedo made the same revelation soon after.

All of the activism surrounding the Dream Act over the summer resulted in a September vote in the Senate. But it was tied to the National Defense Reauthorization Act and to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and Democrats could not muster enough support. Then the midterm elections swept a new crop of anti-immigrant lawmakers into power, dimming prospects for comprehensive immigration reform for the foreseeable future.

But immigrant youth have stepped up the pressure rather than retreating, arguing for a stand-alone Dream Act vote during the lame duck session. Many undocumented students went to Nevada to help salvage Senate leader Harry Reid’s political career, exacting a promise from him to bring the Dream Act to a vote. They also went to work on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the White House and the established immigrant rights groups, netting a general consensus that while comprehensive immigration reform is still desired, the Dream Act is a do-able, bipartisan step toward a more just immigration policy.

“Right now, with the Dreamers, you are seeing for the first time ever actually undocumented folks leading the way,” said Kyle de Beausette, an American who grew up in Guatemala. De Beausette is on leave from Harvard University and has been active in pushing for the Dream Act through his website on Twitter and in the state of Maine. “They really taught me just how democracy works … it’s amazing to me how you have actually undocumented immigrants moving the president of the United States, moving the Majority Leader.”

My name is Aaron and I am an undocumented Idaho high school student. My future is in jeopardy, but I am eager for the Dream Act to pass. Around my school there is no talk about the Dream Act anywhere. The only reason I know about the Dream Act is because I watch Univision news and Channel One, which occasionally airs in our school and sometimes has some news about the Dream Act. I have tried to help however I can. I texted members of Congress and even called some, including Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada.

I follow national Dream Act politics from my home in rural Idaho. The only hope for me to be someone, and the only hope for my nightmares to finally end and my fear to cease is some form of immigration reform, the best option being the Dream Act. I want Congress to stop playing around with my dreams. I’m a person. I know some of them are just using me and other people like me to win elections. But I know there must be some out there who actually stand for something.

After being undocumented for so long without anything happening that would help me get my documents, I decided to do anything I could to give this Dream Act more chances to pass. This, unfortunately, turned out to be very complicated. In Idaho, there is no activist group pushing for the Dream Act. Idaho, being a conservative state, makes things extra hard. After e-mailing my favorite morning radio stations about the Dream Act and not getting a response, I created a Facebook fan page called “Idaho Dream Act.” This fan page is getting bigger; it’s about to reach 150 fans.

I thought long and hard about going public with my undocumented status, and I decided that if my elected congressmen knew a local story from someone suffering because of their actions, maybe they could turn back and fix their mistakes before it’s too late. Sometimes I feel as if we are just a figment of their imaginations and not real people to them. So basically, I want them to look me in the eyes and give me a response. I’m really annoyed that when they do something and say something toward me that will affect me, they do it with their backs to me. I’m very aware that most of the public around here has never met an illegal immigrant or is unaware if they have. I want to see how people and politicians respond after reading a personal story. If they respond in a negative way, that would be a good way to know they don’t care about me.

If they respond in a positive way, I will know that there is still a future ahead of me. Right now I feel as if I could lose my future if the law doesn’t pass this time. But I have a lot of support from family and friends. They help me out emotionally and help me take my mind off of these issues. This simple choice before Congress could either ruin my life or help me become a regular American citizen who doesn’t have to worry about the police every time he steps out into the road. I do feel really nervous about this vote on the Dream Act because whichever way it goes will change my life dramatically, either for the worst or for the best. I do hope it’s for the best.

There is evidence that the personal narratives of Dream students can move politicians. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who opposed the Dream Act when it was part of a larger package, acknowledges that people brought across the border as children warrant “different consideration.” Both Crapo and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch declined to speak specifically about the Dream Act until it is brought up for a final vote. Several Republicans who opposed the bill when tacked onto other measures have said they would support it on its own merits and several Democrats are wavering in their support for the act in the wake of the midterm elections. But Dreamers and all of the major pro-immigrant organizations across the country are pushing hard for lame duck passage.

While the bill continues to be attacked from the right—the six-year conditional visa is still called amnesty by some—it has also faced opposition from some on the left. Immigrant youth who cannot afford college (aside from opening up the possibility of in-state tuition, the Dream Act still precludes undocumented students from getting federal aid) will be under pressure to join the military and the military’s top brass have enthusiastically embraced the bill. In addition, the Dream Act only provides a one-time opportunity for those who qualify when it’s signed into law. A child who is brought to the Unites States the day after it becomes law would not be eligible.

But there are 2 million people who would have an immediate incentive to further their educations or serve their country or both. And the fact that undocumented youth have stood up to advocate for the Dream Act is, for some, enough reason to support it.

“It’s not about legislation, it’s about the movement that’s around it,” de Beausette said.

Undocumented immigrant youth, in less than a year, have changed the face of the immigrant rights movement, in part by adopting “undocumented” as a feature of their identity.

Unzueta’s mother, also an activist, urged her not to embrace her immigration status as her identity, but Unzueta did anyway.

“The reality is that our experience, our whole life, we’ve grown up undocumented. We don’t feel like Mexican citizens, we feel like undocumented Americans,” she said.

Aaron, one of the youngest immigrant youth to make a public call for passage of the Dream Act, is still not sure where his identity will end up. One draft of this story referred to him as an “undocumented American,” but he said that while “undocumented” reflects his situation, it’s not how he thinks of himself. Aaron is an American teenager and is confident that his friends and teachers will still see him that way. And like any American, he is seeking justice through democracy, even if it’s a lame duck democracy: Sometimes I feel as if we are just a figment of their imaginations, and not real people to them. So basically, I want them to look me in the eyes and give me a response. If they respond in a positive way, I will know that there is still a future ahead of me.

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