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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 dreamactivist.org, 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 citizenorange.com 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.