September 03, 2010

 

Undocumented students push for their ‘Dream’
by Melissa Cowan

For many undocumented students — including some 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from U.S. high schools each year — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is their only hope for higher education in the United States.

The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, allows undocumented students who entered the country with their parents before the age of 16 and have lived in the United States for at least five years to remain in the United States and eventually become permanent residents or citizens.

“This is no longer just me fighting for my dreams, but fighting for the dreams of the thousands of students across the country that graduate every year without being able to go to college,” said Myrna Orozco of her support for passage of the DREAM Act. (photo by Melissa Cowan)

While there are ways for undocumented students to continue to college, the DREAM Act would provide the opportunity for more financial aid, and allow students to use their degree and have a career because they would become citizens through the Act.

Three undocumented students from the Kansas City area faced this same struggle and decided to fight for their futures, a fight that put them in jail and almost cost them the lives they've built in the United States.

Myrna Orozco, 20, came from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico when she was four. Ricardo Quinones, 20, came from Durango, Mexico when he was six months, and Diana Martinez, 18, came from Chihuahua, Mexico when she was six.

Orozco, Quinones and Martinez are members of the KC/MO DREAM Alliance and are three of the 21 undocumented students that were arrested on July 20 in Washington D.C. after participating in a sit in to push the DREAM Act.

“This was no longer just me fighting for my dreams, but fighting for the dreams of the thousands of students across the country that graduate every year without being able to go on to college,” Orozco said. “If this action can help (cause) movement within the Senate to move the DREAM Act then it’s all been worth it, even if I no longer qualify once I’m done.”

If Orozco is charged for participating in the sit in, she may not qualify under the DREAM Act, if passed, because she would then have a record; she also faces deportation.

Martinez participated in the sit in for the same reason, to push the Act.

“People need to take action,” she said. “Our senators and congressmen are not doing much to pass this legislation so we took it upon ourselves to do something about it, to tell them, ‘Risk it — we are.’”

U.S. Senators Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and Richard Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate from Chicago, are the leading sponsors of the Act.

Locally, Missouri State Sen. Jolie Justus is a supporter. Congressman Lacy Clay (Missouri’s 1st District) and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II (Missouri’s 5th District) are co-sponsors of the Act.

Other organizations like the Greater Kansas City Jobs with Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas and Western Missouri have been supportive of the DREAM Act, said Orozco, but are concerned with immigration reform as a whole.

Orozco, Quinones and Martinez would qualify to stay in the United States under the Act.

“This isn’t just another bill — this is our lives,” Quinones said. “This is for our families, too. They made so many sacrifices so we could get ahead and do better for ourselves.”

Quinones is studying psychology at the University of Kansas and would like to continue to medical school for psychiatry. Martinez is a student at Kansas City, Kansas Community College. She plans to study environmental science but “it keeps changing.” Her dream school is Berkley, but she is also looking at the University of Kansas. Orozco is double majoring in political science and nonprofit leadership studies at Rockhurst University and taking some general studies courses over the summer at Donnelly College in Kansas; she wants to be a lawyer.

Orozco dropped out of high school after her freshman year, discouraged she would not be able to find a way to go to college — until she found the DREAM Act when she was 16.

She went back to school and graduated in 2009.

She is able to attend Rockhurst and Donnelly because both are private universities and have the choice to allow undocumented students to attend; she's received institutional aid and private scholarships, which do not require a Social Security Number.

But she faced not being able to go back to school after this summer because her scholarships were only available for one year.

“I don’t believe it’s fair for me to not exercise the right to go to school, to learn, to become educated,” Orozco said. “I reached the point where there’s no greater loss than not being able to go to school. If I were to be deported, I really have nothing to lose anymore — there’s no future for me without the DREAM Act.”

The day of the sit in, hundreds of undocumented students from across the country gathered to hold a mock graduation ceremony.

“Undocumented students represent every aspect of American culture,” Orozco said “Valedictorians, Class Presidents, National Honor Society.”

After the graduation, 21 students decided to go through with the sit in; none of the 21 students have previous criminal records.

Orozco and three other girls sat in U.S. Sen. John McCain's office. McCain, from Arizona, was a sponsor of the DREAM Act but 15 minutes before the vote in 2007, McCain walked out.

“For me, it was to hold him accountable for the promises he already made,” Orozco said. “Just because it’s election season doesn’t mean you get to play around with my future.”

Now, the possibility of deportation is Orozco’s future.

“I thought about it long and hard (before she went to Washington) — where am I going to go, who am I going to be with?” Orozco said.

“We were raised here,” said Ricardo Quinones, shown here with Diana Martinez. “We consider ourselves American. It’s just a little nine-digit number that’s holding us back.” Martinez was six years old when she came to the United States; Quinones was 6-months old. (photo by Melissa Cowan)

Most of her family is here in Kansas City; Juarez, where she is born, is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, she said.

But she was not afraid in Washington, not even when the police arrived to arrest her.

“It was surreal,” Orozco said of being arrested. “I think I was even happy at a time because my whole life I’ve been avoiding police. I’ve never got in trouble with anything. It was like having your biggest fear put right in front of you and you’re willingly going into it. I lost the fear.”

As they were getting arrested, she could hear the chants of the hundreds of students outside, cheering and rallying for them.

Martinez sat in U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, Quinones in Sen. Charles Schumer’s Washington office.

Schumer, from New York, has refused to sponsor the DREAM Act, Orozco said. There was a hunger strike outside of his office in June but he wouldn’t even talk to the students, though he has said he would bring immigration reform.

Feinstein, from California, says she supports the DREAM Act but has done nothing to try to push it.

“I felt a little empowered,” Martinez said of being arrested. “We’re doing this for 65 thousand students and our families… I was a little nervous but I wasn’t scared. We can’t be scared anymore — we have to be ready for whatever is going to come.”

Quinones agreed. “Everyone was nervous, but we just kept telling ourselves we’re doing this for the right reason.”

The 21 students arrested, including Orozco, Martinez and Quinones, spent the night in jail and were taken into court the next day in shackles to be given the date of their hearing; they were charged with unlawful entry.

“We were raised here,” Quinones said. “We consider ourselves American. It’s just a little nine digit number that’s holding us back.”

The hearing date for Quinones and Martinez was Aug. 12, and their cases were dismissed; they do not have to go to trial.

Although the Obama administration deported 389,834 people in 2009 (about 20,000 more than 2008 when George W. Bush was in office), according to the immigration enforcement agency (ICE), no student has been deported, according to a recent New York Times article, “Students spared amid increase in deportations.”

Deportations of undocumented immigrants with civil violations, not criminal violations, have dropped 24 percent, the article stated.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Press Secretary Matt Chandler issued this statement: “This administration is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on those dangerous criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately."

However, Orozco is still unsure of her fate; her hearing was Aug. 20.

But unlike Quinones and Martinez, Orozco’s case was not dismissed. She will be going to trial and defending and representing herself in front of the judge Oct. 1.

“I don’t want to think about (being deported) too much,” she said. “I know what I would do — get a job and go to school, but I don’t want to think about having to leave my family, being by myself,” Orozco said. “I don’t know my family in Mexico — my whole life is here... I would never go back to Juarez — I would probably find some touristy place and see if I can get a job. I would definitely look into going to school — I still want to be educated.”

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, has stated that “(The Act)… is critical to improving the pipeline from high school to college and providing meaningful employment for Latinos.”

If passed, the students would be granted Conditional Permanent Residency for 6 years, during which time they would need to have a high school diploma or GED, complete two years of college or military service and have good moral character (or be a law-abiding citizen).

After an additional five years, students could become permanent residents.

Melissa Cowan can be contacted at mrcgfd@mail.umkc.edu.

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