How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

DREAM Act supporters staging full-court press for upcoming vote

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

DREAM Act supporter Sophia Sandoval calls members of the Senate from her iPhone at a makeshift phone bank in Westlake, September 16, 2010

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.


The DREAM Act, through the back door

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A sign parodying the famous immigrant highway-crossing sign, outside a DREAM Act rally in Los Angeles last month

The less-known military component of the DREAM Act is proving to be its saving grace this week: Yesterday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid announced that next week he will offer the legislation as an amendment to a Defense Department authorization bill, pushing the long-proposed immigration legislation toward a Senate vote.

Why add the DREAM Act to a defense bill? The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, while it is primarily seen as providing a path to legalization to undocumented youths who attend college, also allows youths who join the military to qualify for legal status.

The proposed legislation is mentioned as the "DREAM initiative" in a U.S. Department of Defense strategic plan for 2010 through 2012. From the plan, in a section that addresses recruiting goals:


Quote of the moment: A deported teenager, writing from Bangladesh

Photo by joiseyshowaa/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A traffic jam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2008

"I do not know the language and I fear going outside because I am different from everyone else. Speaking in English is an easy way to be targeted here. We cannot afford to live in a safer area. I have not left the apartment for 8 months. It simply is too dangerous for me to leave the apartment unless my parents go with me. I cannot attend school due to the language barrier. I do not know anyone in Bangladesh.

"...Mr. President, you are the most powerful man in the world, all I ask from you is to bring me home."

- Saad Nabeel, arrived in the United States at age 3, recently deported at 18

Nabeel was removed to Bangladesh in November, along with his parents, who were trying to obtain green cards. His personal story appeared this week on the social-justice blog Citizen Orange as part of a series of posts written by undocumented students, titled "DREAM Now: Letters to Barack Obama."


Students tell their personal stories in DREAM Act 'letters'

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A sign parodying the famous immigrant highway-crossing sign, outside a DREAM Act rally in Los Angeles earlier this month.

For the past several weeks, I've been following a series of posts on the social-justice blog Citizen Orange that features the personal stories of undocumented college students.

Titled "DREAM Now: Letters to Barack Obama," it is part of a social media advocacy campaign in support of the DREAM Act, with the posts disseminated via a series of other supportive blogs. However, the stories of the students, with related video clips, are interesting enough in themselves to be worthy of a compelling profile series.

Part of what I like is the focus on students from various corners of the world: Young people from Iran, India, Russia and Korea are featured along with students from Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela. While letting readers know that illegal immigration isn't just a Latino issue is undoubtedly part of the goal of the series, being reminded doesn't hurt. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of the undocumented population of the United States is not from Latin America.


The DREAM Act and the military


Photo by Herald Post/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Hispanic heritage celebration at a military installation in Heidelberg, Germany, October 2009

A post on the LA Eastside blog this afternoon regarding a town hall meeting on DREAM Act, scheduled to place tonight in Echo Park, is worth highlighting in that it brings up an aspect of the bill which garners relatively little attention: That college wouldn't be the only way for undocumented youths to earn legal status under the proposed legislation. They could also earn legal status by joining the military, and this worries some folks, among them people of color who don't want to see their community's kids - already targeted by military recruiters - now marching off to combat for fear of otherwise being deported.

I reported on this issue during a previous incarnation of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the DREAM Act. Now, as pro-DREAM Act student activism has reached new heights, and the Obama administration has quietly spared some young people from deportation who would be affected by the bill if it were to pass, the "backdoor draft" concern is again bubbling to the surface. Supporters of the DREAM Act, meanwhile, argue that the good outweighs the bad, and that no one would be forced to enlist.