Students taking charge
After breaking his high school’s record for the most pull-ups, Missouri honor student Noe Guzman was recruited by the Marines. But when he arrived at military offices for a physical exam, immigration authorities placed him in handcuffs and shackles. It was then that he discovered that the Social Security number his mother had given him when he was 12 was actually a fake one. “I thought this was my home,” he said in a Senate briefing. “I was willing to die for this country.”
“I think everyone understands the circumstances these kids find themselves in, but we have to see who’s responsible,” Mehlman said. “The DREAM Act is sending a mixed message. It says, don’t come to the United States illegally, but if you happen to do it, and your kids happen to make it through high school, there’s an award waiting. It absolves their parents for the responsibility for the illegal act of putting their kids in the situation in the first place.”
Supporters argue that to deny students like Guzman and Lara a path to citizenship is punishing them for mistakes of their parents. “Over time, our parents’ dreams have become our own,” Marisol Ramos, co-founder of New York State Youth Leadership Council, said in a phone interview. “It’s been 10 years of us waiting for something to happen. The DREAM Act is a viable first step for starting conversation on comprehensive immigration reform.”
Student activism has been key in raising awareness about those who would be affected by DREAM legislation. Guzman also received a deportation postponement after his case was publicized nationally, as did Roberto Padilla, an Illinois college student detained by immigration authorities after he was arrested on driving violations. Students held rallies on Padilla’s behalf and organized a campaign to bombard Congress members with faxes and e-mails, which resulted in Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky offering to sponsor a private bill to halt Padilla’s deportation.
“There has been a more intensified effort to push the effort as students really grow frustrated over Congress’s inaction,” Fisseha said. Students who were in middle school or junior high when the bill was first introduced are now college graduates or waiting to go to college. “The youth are actually pretty sophisticated and they know the bill has always been bipartisan. Through their work, it has gained a lot of momentum and they feel that inaction is no longer an option.”
Student-led actions such as hunger strikes, sit-ins and mock graduation ceremonies are all part of a national movement to pass the DREAM Act this year, Ramos said. “We’ve become politically savvy in the past 10 years,” she said. “Technology has been crucial for us. We use Twitter to communicate instantly, and nationally, we’re connected online, since undocumented students can’t travel without risk. We’re ready to put our lives on the line for this.”
Sites like Dream Activist and The Dream Is Coming are increasing the visibility of DREAM supporters, and Facebook and e-mail have helped organize protest efforts. On June 1, immigrant students embarked on a hunger strike in front of the New York City offices of Senator Charles Schumer to urge him to pass the DREAM Act as a standalone bill, instead of attached to a larger package that has less of a chance of passing.
Politics as usual?
On May 17, in one of the first known instances of activists risking deportation for immigration reform, according to The New York Times, three undocumented students who participated in a sit-in at the Tucson offices of Senator John McCain were arrested and are now facing deportation proceedings. One student, Mohammad Abdollah, immigrated to the U.S. from Iran when he was 3 years old and was rejected for residency because his family mistakenly paid the wrong application fee. Because he is gay, he fears persecution if deported to Iran.
In an election year, some Congress members are hesitant to support pro-immigration legislation.
McCain has sponsored the DREAM Act in the past, although he was one of four senators absent for the vote in 2007. But with conservative talk-radio host J.D. Hayworth as his main opponent in the upcoming Senate primary, McCain has since reneged on sponsoring DREAM. “We’re calling him out on his empty promises,” Ramos said. “If politicians can’t even stand by their words, then what hope do we have for them to move towards a solution?”
“An election year always makes moving legislation complicated and that may play a factor in whether or not people support the DREAM Act,” Fisseha said. Still, she remains optimistic that the bill will be passed this year.
“The way the bill is constructed, it’s anything but a free pass,” she said. ‘This is about rewarding success and perseverance to people who have graduated from high school despite a number of obstacles. And once they meet all the threshold requirements, they have to continue on in higher education or serving in the military. In this country, we’ve long had policies of not punishing kids for the decisions their parents have made.”