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The Daily Need

Young activists take DREAMs into their own hands

Ruben Bernal, who recently graduated from San Jose State University, rallies for the Dream Act in downtown San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, June 29, 2011. Photo: AP/Paul Sakuma

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas publicly announced in June that he was an undocumented immigrant, he shocked friends and employers and sparked a national conversation about U.S. immigration policy. But throughout the country, young undocumented students have been making their own immigration statuses public, riding a tidal wave of college-based activism to come forward with personal stories of growing up young and undocumented in the U.S.

Monday marked the ten-year anniversary of the first introduction of the federal DREAM Act to Congress, the bill that would carve out a path toward U.S. citizenship for those who emigrated illegally as children but graduated from a U.S. college or served in the military. Monday also marked ten years of student-based activism on college campuses nationwide – young undocumented students facing the threat of arrest and deportation to urge local and federal lawmakers to provide opportunities for undocumented youth to attend college and compete in the U.S. job market.

“We want to show that we are like any other person in the U.S., just without a nine-digit number,” said Jorge de la Concha in an interview last month. De la Cocha is an undocumented student and activist attending college in California. At age 13, he emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his family. When he was old enough to start applying for colleges, he came upon the stark realization that his status might not allow him to afford tuition. Now a college sophomore, he has become a visible and vocal participant in student activism.

The federal DREAM Act has failed to pass both houses numerous times since its introduction into Congress in 2001. In late 2010, the bill notably passed the House, but failed to gather enough votes to bypass a Senate filibuster. In the meantime, more than a dozen states have enacted their own DREAM Acts, granting undocumented students access to scholarships and financial aid. Illinois was the most recent state to pass such legislation, one week after California enacted a similar law allowing students to apply for private financial aid for college.

Ju Hong, another student activist, was unaware of his own immigration status until he was a senior in high school set to apply for college. When he asked his mother for his Social Security number, she informed him that their family had been overstaying their tourist visa since they moved to the U.S. from Korea when Hong was 11 years old.

“Because of that, my personality changed,” Hong said in an interview last week. “In high school, I was a very outgoing guy, very talkative. But after I found out about my status, I became very antisocial.”

In mid-July, Hong was one of seven students arrested by authorities at a “coming out” rally for undocumented students at San Bernardino Valley College in southern California. The rally was not only an opportunity for undocumented students to share testimonies of their lives, but also to protest a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) program called 287(g) that would enable local law enforcement to share data with ICE and verify the immigration statuses of people who commit crimes. Critics of the program say that it has failed to focus on high-level offenders and instead resulted in the deportation of thousands of non-criminals instead.

“We were chanting ‘Undocumented, unafraid,'” recalled Hong. “When I was arrested, I didn’t get scared at all. A lot of supporters came. I felt very empowered.”

The arrests at San Bernardino Valley College came only three months after a similar “coming out” rally in Atlanta, Georgia, resulted in the arrest of seven students. None of the arrests in San Bernardino or Atlanta have resulted in deportations, although Hong has received a notice for an impending hearing at an immigration court.

Both Hong and de la Concha, initially very private about their immigration statuses, became active members of the undocumented student movement through hearing personal stories from other immigrant youth in their communities and throughout the country. Hong found testimonies from undocumented students through blogs and websites, eventually finding an active community at UC Berkeley. De la Concha became involved with Puente, a program providing academic assistance to disadvantaged students, and met scores of other undocumented students there. Stories of struggle, success and deportation, coupled with their own life experiences, encouraged them to finally come forward with their own stories. De la Concha recalls a time when, as a high school student, he approached his school counselor with a request to take a French class.

“My counselor told me, ‘Learn English first,’ and to get ready for the work force, because I probably wouldn’t be able to go past being a dishwasher at a restaurant,” de la Concha recalls.

Hong faced a similar situation applying for a job at a local restaurant as a high school student. The owner, a Korean-American man, asked for his Social Security number, which Hong couldn’t provide.

“He ripped up my application and said, ‘We don’t hire illegals. You just wasted my time,'” Hong said.

Congressional failure to pass the federal DREAM Act over the past ten years, along with gloomy reports that show that undocumented students with college degrees still face low-skill and low-wage jobs after graduation, make activism the only viable option left for many of these students.  But Hong and de la Concha still have big plans for their futures after leaving college. After Hong graduates UC Berkeley next year, he plans to go to law school and become an immigration lawyer. De la Concha wants to specialize in education through becoming a college counselor and obtaining both a Master’s degree and a Ph.D.

“I want to go all the way to the top,” he said.

In the meantime, public announcements like the one Vargas made in June are celebratory moments for undocumented students like de la Concha and Hong. More people going public about their own immigration statuses will humanize the cause and encourage more students to rally for legislative change, they said. And pushing aside their own fear to tell their stories to the public is all part of the long campaign that may finally, one day, grant them U.S. citizenship.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” de la Concha said. “I feel I can go out on the street and put on a sign that says ‘I’m undocumented.'”

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