As DREAM Act Becomes More Visible, Student Immigrants Boost Their Activism

There is a heightened sense of urgency among young DREAMers who have been marching around Washington D.C. in caps and gowns, risking arrest and even deportation.

As early as this week, Congress will vote on the Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act as they have almost every year since 2001. Over the years, immigration activists have become accustomed to the quick-swinging pendulum between hope and disappointment, but this time young activists seem less inclined to keep their optimism in check.

“It feels completely different this time around,” says Dulce Juarez, 23, a masters of higher education candidate at Arizona State University, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 5 years old. Dulce has been fasting for the last 7 days outside the office of Sen. John McCain, who sponsored an earlier of the DREAM Act, but has more recently voted against the bill. She has campaigned for the DREAM Act -- and its legislative predecessor, the Student Adjustment Act -- since she was in eighth grade. “People know what the DREAM Act is now! We have the support of these massive organizations. Tons of news stations are coming out,” says Dulce, whose boundless energy seems entirely unaffected by fasting.

This time is, in fact, “different.” The bill, for one, has changed -- in ways that may appeal to undecided senators. In 2001, the Student Adjustment Act provided legal residency and path to citizenship for any undocumented person under the age of 21 who had lived in the U.S. for more than 5 years, completed the sixth grade, and deemed of “good moral standing.” To qualify under the current iteration of the DREAM Act, young immigrants must graduate from high school and then serve at least two years in the military or complete two years of a four-year college degree. Unlike former versions of the bill, they would not be eligible for federal grants or loans and they would only be eligible for in-state tuition on a state-to-state basis.


For many young DREAMers, the stakes seem unusually high this time. “We’re in a state of emergency,” says Silvia Rodriguez, 23, a masters of education candidate at Harvard, who was 1 when she and her family moved from Mexico to Arizona. “With SB1070” -- the law in Arizona that entrusts local police with the same capacities as immigration enforcement officers -- “things have just gotten so out of hand, and with the new congress they might not get better in awhile.” In January, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has insisted that children born in the United States to undocumented parents should not be eligible for citizenship, will likely be named the head of the House Judiciary Committee; Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who has called the DREAM Act a “multi-billion dollar amnesty nightmare,” will likely head the House Subcommittee on Immigration. This may be the last time the DREAM Act comes up for a vote in two years -- or until the Democrats regain the House. You must be under 30-years-old to qualify for the bill -- many of the original activists are no longer eligible -- and undocumented students in their mid-twenties worry that they are running out of time.

There is, accordingly, a heightened sense of desperation among young DREAMers who have been marching around Washington D.C. in caps and gowns, risking arrest and even deportation, while chanting that they are “undocumented and unafraid.” In San Antonio, seven students have staged a hunger strike -- they are now on their 26th day -- outside the office of Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

This Tuesday in Chicago, members of the Youth Immigration Justice League, will stage a “Die-In” downtown, during which undocumented students who have considered or attempted suicide will share their experiences. Miguel Martinez, 19, will be one of the students speaking. When Miguel started at William Wells high school he was an eager, straight-A student; but then, half-way through his freshman year he had, what he calls, his “click” moment. “I realized I shouldn’t try hard because I wasn’t able to go to college if I didn’t have any documents,” said Jaime, who came to Chicago from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He all but dropped out of school, he never applied to college, and he now works as a busboy at an upscale Italian restaurant.

“You see all your classmates start a new chapter and still be stuck in the old one,” Miguel will tell the crowd on Tuesday -- his first time discussing his undocumented status in public.

“Hopefully political people will understand that this isn’t just a bill, this is people’s lives,” says Miguel, who hopes to go to art school one day ­– “there’s no point now because I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my degree.”

Unlike Dulce and Silvia, Miguel isn’t completely confident that the bill will pass. “I don’t want to be too hopeful, but I do want to believe in it, you know?”

Diego, 18, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7, is similarly unsure what to believe. A former valedictorian and an aspiring engineer, he takes a studious approach towards most things, and mining the news is no exception. “I’ve been watching Fox, Univision, CNN, and they’re all saying different things. It’s very confusing,” says Diego, anguished. Diego is a student at Norwalk Community College; he was accepted into Cornell, among other universities, but was unable to afford the tuition. When the DREAM Act came up for a vote in September, as part of the defense authorization bill, Diego remained cautious. “You go up too high and you fall too far down,” Diego told me at the time. But now, Diego, who went through high school without telling anyone his immigration status, is planning on distributing fliers around his college campus. “I want to change my perspective…next year is going to get harder.”

If the DREAM Act doesn’t go forward, Diego may decide to complete his education in Mexico. Dulce, who graduates in two weeks, will probably take some time off. “I’m going to travel -- around the U.S., of course. Recharge my batteries.” She’s had plenty of job offers -- “I have job offers up the butt,” as she says– but without working papers, she can’t accept any of the offers. Silvia, who has another semester left of school, plans to apply to PhD programs. “I’ve conditioned to believe that school is the only safe place for me to be.”

Silvia’s family isn’t so lucky. Last week, her mother showed up at her sister’s high school with two mismatching identification cards and someone called ICE -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Silvia flew back from school to try to help her mother find a lawyer.

“If the DREAM Act passed, I could help my family more,” says Silvia. “I have to be hopeful.”

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Jessica Weisberg is a writer currently living in Chicago. Her articles can be found in The Nation, n+1, and The American Prospect, among other publications.