A dozen or so young DREAM Act supporters sat in a cramped room in the Westlake district this afternoon, using every available phone line as they scrolled down lists of phone numbers for U.S. senators. When there weren't enough land lines, they used their cell phones.
With a Senate vote coming up next week on the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would provide a path to legal status for undocumented youths who attend college or join the military, the students manning a makeshift phone bank at the UCLA Labor Center by McArthur Park had no time to waste.
"This is really going to define an entire generation in what we are able to generate for the economy," said Fabiola Inzunza, 24, an undocumented UCLA graduate who recently completed her degree after six years of attending on and off while she worked, unable to obtain public student loans because of her status.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would move the DREAM Act, versions of which have languished around the capital for a decade, to a vote next week as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. President Obama has also promised his support.
Since then, student organizations and other groups in support have been setting up impromptu phone banks around the country. Locally, a dozen lines at the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles were being put to use this afternoon, CHIRLA spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera said. Some students were making calls from the UCLA campus.
At the UCLA center in Westlake, where a handful of students worked the phones today, at least 20 students and DREAM Act supporters were expected return to make calls tomorrow. High up on the call list were numbers for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), an early sponsor of the bill who has since said he will vote against it, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has also said he will not support the bill, although he has sent mixed messages.
Of the callers in Westlake today, many arrived in the United States as small children and remained undocumented. Inzunza arrived from Mexico with her family as a two-year-old, and remains the only member of her family without documents; Carlos Amador, a 25-year-old graduate student who participated in a hunger strike by DREAM Act supporters two months ago, arrived at the age of six. Amador said he has helped pay tuition by e-mailing a network of friends and relatives for donations.
In the years since the bill was first introduced - the last vote was in 2007 - its supporters have gradually moved it away from the larger realm of comprehensive immigration reform, since its military component makes it harder to contest than other proposed reform measures. The bill has the support of the U.S. Department of Defense, which mentions it as the "DREAM initiative" in a section of a strategic plan for 2010 through 2012 that addresses recruiting.
Some opponents of minority military recruiting have criticized the bill as a way for recruiters to get their hands on vulnerable undocumented youths who might fear deportation enough to enlist. But without the military provision, its supporters say, the bill doesn't stand a chance.
"If we get rid of the military aspect, we get rid of our support from Republicans, and from some Democrats," graduate student Amador said.
Sixty votes in favor will be needed for the bill to proceed. The defense bill, incidentally, also contains a provision that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military.