Immigrant Youth Get Politically Active, Spurred By Proposed Law

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By Colby Hamilton & Alana Casanova-Burgess

This story was updated December 9, 2010.

Monica Vega stood behind a police barricade in front of Sen. Charles Schumer’s downtown New York City office, watching anxiously as the last day of the 10-day hunger strike in which she and hundreds more were participating in early June unfolded. The quiet, soft-spoken 18-year-old peered nervously over her eyeglasses as dozens of supporters pushed forward against the railing chanting, “Shame on Schumer.” Vega and the rest of the protesters wanted the senator – who was in Washington, D.C. at the time – to agree to meet with their delegation to talk about legislation they wanted passed.

On the tenth day, when an invitation to meet still did not appear forthcoming, some of the activists would escalate their round-the-clock protest by attempting to enter and occupy Schumer’s office, only to be expelled from the building by a security guard. Within minutes, they would be lying down on the sidewalk to protest their treatment, watching a dozen police offers approach and threaten them with arrest.

As the police moved in and began issuing warnings, Vega, who stood on the sidelines, tensed up. Her heart beat faster and her eyes began to tear. It was her first protest. She didn’t know what the police would do and didn’t want to see her friends get arrested. “I wanted to cry when I saw them lying in front of the office; it was sad,” Monica explained. “It felt like Schumer didn’t care what happened to us.”

The DREAM Act

Vega is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and one of hundreds of young New York City Latino immigration activists who – despite the increasingly menacing tenor of the nation’s immigration debate and the threat of deportation – have been drawn into political activism over the past 10 years. Part of their motivation has been the bill Vega was fighting for in June.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act, would allow some undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 34 to apply for conditional permanent citizenship upon acceptance to college or the military. Some of those who’ve completed two years of military service or obtained an associate’s degree would also be eligible.

According to recent estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based independent think tank, approximately 726,000 undocumented youth now between the ages of 18 and 34 could immediately benefit from the bill. About 612,000 of them could use their new status to apply for federal and state financial aid, increasing their access to higher education.

Most anti-illegal immigration groups oppose the bill, saying that it is an amnesty plan disguised as an education initiative and that it undermines the enforcement of laws prohibiting illegal immigration to the U.S. “The DREAM Act is being used to sugar coat a massive amnesty plan,” explained Bob Dane, the director of communications at Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national non-profit seeking stronger border security and an end to illegal immigration. “We’re not punishing children for the illegal acts of their parents; we’re merely not rewarding them.”

But because young undocumented immigrants hoping to go to college stand to gain so much from the bill, it has become – during the 10 years that Congress has considered the legislation – the rallying point of thousands of Latino youth activists nationwide.

The week Vega and others protested in New York City, hundreds of other Latino students across the country in Florida, Illinois, California, and Arizona held their own group hunger strikes and rallies in support of the DREAM Act. In New York, more political action followed the June protest, when activists organized a vigil outside of Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez’s office and went to Washington, D.C. to speak to key members of congress. Over the years, hundreds of New York City Latino immigrants have participated, aiming to push the bill through while they were still under 35 and eligible to benefit from it.

“Undocumented youth have been the forefront of the DREAM Act movement for almost 10 years,” explained Jennifer Cariño, co-founder of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the immigrant youth organization coordinating local DREAM Act political activism. “A lot of them have been organizing on this since it was first introduced,” said Cariño.

The Making of an Organizer

Vega and her parents came to the U.S. undocumented in 2000, specifically hoping that life here would bring more educational opportunities for Vega, then 8 years old. The family settled in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park and her father began working for a business that installs wood floors, while her mother stayed home to care for her grandchildren.

Vega understood her parents’ sacrifice and risk and tried to do her best in school, despite initially struggling with English. Her ambition to learn and her desire to help others sparked her interest in psychology and education; and by her senior year, Vega knew she wanted to go to college. But in January 2009, when the then high school senior began researching her options for financing it, she discovered that there were few.

Currently, eleven states – including New York – have laws allowing undocumented immigrant students in the U.S. to pay in-state tuition, dramatically reducing their educational costs. But without residency or citizenship, immigrants are not eligible for federal or state financial aid. At the City University of New York, immigrants – regardless of their status – are eligible to apply for some merit-based scholarships that do not require proof of legal status. But with a 2.7 GPA Vega’s grades were too low to obtain one.

Seeing no way to afford tuition, her father suggested that the family return to Mexico and that Vega go to school there. Vega argued against it. “I don’t know what Mexico is like. I grew up here,” she said. “I told him that I didn’t want to go back, that it was ok if they went back, but that I didn’t want to.” Her parents agreed to stay and support her, on one condition – that she keep pursuing her education.

At her mother’s suggestion, Vega sought help from La Unión de La Comunidad Latina – a Sunset Park-based Latino community organization where Vega had once participated in a summer program. That’s where she learned about the Dream Act. Through training that La Unión gave her in the fall of 2009, she realized that she wanted to get involved in fighting for the bill.

Through the Youth Organizing Commission of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, she learned about the June rally and hunger strike and helped to organize the participation of undocumented students in her neighborhood. The goal of the protest was to convince Schumer, the chair of the Senate subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Boarder Security, to meet with them and to agree to move the bill to the Senate floor as a standalone, so it could be considered entirely on its merits. Organizers believed the bill had a chance to overcome a Republican filibuster, because the bill had previously received bi-partisan support and Democrats were controlling the Senate. Vega knew that participating in the protest would expose her to the risk of deportation, but believed it was too important to abstain.

The Vote

With police standing above them as they lay on the sidewalk in front of Schumer’s office in June, the 10 young undocumented immigrants broke their hunger strike, nervously eating apples that were handed out to them. After five minutes of disregarding police warnings and orders to get up, the protesters sat up and walked away with their arms locked, avoiding arrest.

To their satisfaction, a simultaneous demonstration outside Schumer’s Washington, D.C. office was initially more successful: the senator admitted the protesters to his office for a talk. But the talk did not fulfill their mission. Schumer agreed to support the bill, but only as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010. “The senator is a sponsor of the DREAM Act and it’s in the current legislation,” his spokesperson Julie Halpin says, referring to Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010. “He’s pushing hard to get it passed,” she continued.

September 21, when the bill went to the Senate floor for a vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced it as an amendment to the military spending bill, along with an amendment to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule. The bill fell 7 votes shy of the 60 votes it needed to advance to the House. All 53 of its votes came from Democrats.

Opponents of the bill applauded the block. In addition to arguing that the bill grants backdoor amnesty, they are concerned that the bill allows beneficiaries to sponsor their relatives once they receive citizenship.

Similar arguments have stymied the bill since Sen. Orin Hatch, a Republican from Utah introduced it in 2001, as an amendment to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Since then every Congress has introduced a version of the bill, usually with bi-partisan support. The only other time the bill received a full-chamber vote was in 2007, when it fell 8 votes shy of the 60 needed to advance to the House.

Back To The Grindstone

A few hours before the Senate voted down the military’s spending bill again, Vega marched with a group of immigration activists from the Mid-Manhattan New York Public Library to Schumer’s office, to raise awareness of the bill.

Their hopeful mood turned sour when they learned the outcome of the vote. Some cried. “We’ve never been this close and it seemed so real,” Vega said. “Then all of a sudden it faded away.”

Back home in Sunset Park, Vega has returned her attention to getting into college. With earnings from the job she started in February, working as a community organizer for La Unión, she is now saving money for tuition. When she has saved about half of the projected four-year-bill, she plans to apply to Brooklyn College, where she would like to major in psychology. “My plans are to go to college and have my career,” Vega said.

She also plans to continue helping youth in her community and advocating for the DREAM Act, which could be brought up for a vote again in the lame duck session of Congress. Sen. Dick Durban of Illinois supports the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill and some activists are planning to continue advocating for the bill after the elections. “Doing this work I’m learning more about immigration, about laws, and about education, and learning things that I could have done, ” Vega explained.

December 8, their efforts paid off when the House voted 216 to 198 to pass H.R. 6497.