This past Saturday, during the “Ask the Leader” session at Netroots Nation, I took my chances and participated in a silent protest of congressional inaction on the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for about one million young people who are American in every way but legal status.
While the DREAM Act was new to many in the audience at one of the nation’s top progressive conferences, it is well-known around Congress. It was first introduced in 2001 by Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Hatch (R-UT). Depending on the immigration politics of the moment, the DREAM Act has received varying levels of bipartisan support, including a time in the 109th Congress when almost half of the US Senate was signed-on as a co-sponsor.
The DREAM Act is fair – and long overdue. It would allow young people who came to the U.S. as children, graduate high school, and complete two years of college or the US military to earn citizenship. Through the years, the DREAM Act has become more than a piece of legislation, but a symbol of hope for thousands of young Americans without legal status. No pun intended.
This is why I was one of four undocumented students to stand up, in cap and gown, during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech at Netroots Nation this past weekend.
Watch the video by Democracia Ahora:
While Senator Reid has expressed his support for the DREAM Act in numerous occasions, his actions – as well as those of the President and Speaker Pelosi – have failed to bring the urgently needed change for immigrant young people in this country. We need him to not only voice his support for the DREAM Act, but work with Senator Durbin and leadership to get the 60 votes he says he needs to make it a reality.
I first heard about the DREAM Act when I was 14-years-old. Having just arrived to the United States, I remember watching the presidential campaign in 2000. All candidates – except for Pat Buchanan and his prophecies of a Tea Party – claimed to support reform with a viable path to legalization. Our visas expired around that time, just as our native Argentina was falling under a deep economic and political crisis. Since it seemed reform was near, we stayed. My family, like many other undocumented families, signed up to pay taxes from the only federal agency that does not discriminate based on legal status: the IRS. And we waited.
The same wait has marked the lives of the three women standing alongside me in front of Reid: Prerna Lal, Lizbeth Mateo, and Yahaira Carrillo. All of us stand to benefit from the DREAM Act. Prerna, a skilled writer and academic who founded a website for undocumented activists, will soon begin law school at George Washington University. Because of a capricious immigration rule that says those who turn 21 while a family application is being processed must re-apply as individuals, Prerna is the only member of her family without legal status. Lizbeth and Yahaira are also long-term activists who have been turning heads around Congress after staging a sit-in in the Tucson office of John McCain, a former co-sponsor of the DREAM Act who has reneged on his support of DREAM in order to appease an angry base seeking to force him out in the primaries. Following their example, 21 other undocumented students staged do sit-ins in the halls of the Senate last week, and many more have said they are ready to take that step as well.
Given that the risk was a trip to a detention center, none of these were regular acts of civil disobedience.
Earlier this year, I was detained by immigration authorities in Minneapolis. Within a few hours, I was taken to an ICE processing facility where I met some of the almost half a million people who have been deported since Obama took office. I saw with about fifteen others in a small room, handcuffed and shackled. I saw grown men crying about being separated from their children, and repeating the highest truth for immigrants in this country: “We only came here to work”. I was able to defer my deportation for at least a year, but the images and voices of those men remain with me.
Yahaira, Lizbeth, Prerna and I understand the political gridlock that causes not only the DREAM Act, but most legislative proposals to be stuck in the current Congress. We have seen the obstructionism to all parts of the agenda, and felt the heightened rhetoric against immigrants seep into the national conversation. But regardless of all these things, we wanted our silent presence to let Reid know that we expect more from him at a time when the story of undocumented immigrants is so often distorted.
In his response to the question about the DREAM Act, Reid reverted back to his own constituents in the state of Nevada, many of whom are waiting for the DREAM Act to pass in order to fulfill their potential. He told a story of a young woman he met many years ago. Like many other DREAM students, she was at the top of her class and – if given the chance – destined to excel in college. Reid confessed he had lost track of her and did not know where she was after all these years, or if she had the chance to make it.
As an activist, I share that uncertainty. I have seen and met more than a thousand undocumented students across the country, and have seen many take courageous action just to get a shot at a normal life in the only country they have ever known.
Senator Reid will introduce the DREAM Act if he has the votes, but I hope he will also be working alongside leaders in the immigrant youth movement like myself to make sure we get them.