As Congress prepares to vote on the DREAM Act next week, undocumented students in New York are making hundreds of calls to nudge politicians to pass this piece of immigration reform. In addition, demonstrations are planned for next week.
With Thanksgiving coming up, we want to say we are grateful for what the congressmen have done for us, said 18-year-old high school senior Francisco Curiel. But we also want them to approve the DREAM Act, so that we can study and give something back to our communities. A dozen other students, immigrant families and members of the press attended a pre-Thanksgiving press conference at the offices of the immigrants rights group Make the Road New York.
The DREAM Act would grant legal residence to undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 35 who have finished high school in the United States and are pursuing a college education or have served two years in the military. Although the bill was introduced in 2002, it has been turned back several times by Republicans and some Democrats who say it will encourage more illegal immigration into the country.
The proposal was last rejected by the Senate in September, when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) unsuccessfully attempted to attach the DREAM Act to a defense authorization bill.
But calls for the DREAM Act to be passed were renewed after Novembers mid-term elections, in which Hispanic voters who generally support this proposed law saved several high-profile Democrat congressmen, including Reid, from losing their seats to Republicans.
After the elections, House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would bring the DREAM Act to a vote on November 29th, this time as a stand-alone proposal. Senate majority leader Harry Reid also promised he would step up efforts to take the DREAM Act to the Senate floor, and its supporters across the country once again stepped up the pressure on Representatives and Senators who may be on the fence about this issue.
Amanda Quichindo, a 17 year old junior from Cuenca, Ecuador, who has been in New York for the past three years, said she was happy to be in the United States, because this was a country that provided educational opportunities, adding that without legal residency, she would not be able to access scholarships and financial aid that she urgently requires if she wants to fulfill her dream of studying medicine. After attending the press conference in Queens, Quichindo headed to a phone bank at the back of Make the Road New Yorks offices, along with Francisco Curiel and half a dozen students belonging to the immigration groups youth project.
Staffers at Make the Road New York are concerned that if the DREAM Act does not pass now, it will be extremely hard to get it approved next year, when Republicans become the majority in the House next January.
But even passing it this year it is a complicated affair in the Senate, where Democrats need 60 votes to pass the law and only hold 59 seats.
Natalia Aristizabal, a youth organizer for Make the Road New York, remains cautiously optimistic. I think you need people, the community not just organizers taking action, she says. And the best way that representatives from New York or anywhere else are going to know that this is what the community needs is if they get the phone calls from the people and they the people get active.
Aristizabal says her youth group of twenty to thirty depending on the week is regularly making calls to Senators Reid and Schumer and to a group of Republican congressmen.
She says her volunteers make hundreds of calls every week and managed to make 300 calls on Monday, when volunteers from a local high school gave them a helping hand.
Calls into representatives offices are flooding from across the country, according to Aristizabal, who gets a daily report on how many calls were made through the toll free line used by several immigrants rights groups. She says that on Monday, 7,000 calls were made across the nation.
In addition, immigrants rights groups are planning to stage rallies around the country, and in Texas a group of students has been staging a hunger strike in Austin for the past two weeks.
Despite the large number of activities, it will not be an easy task to get the House and Senate to move on an issue that is not a priority for congressmen from both sides of the political aisle.
Javier Borja, an 18-year-old volunteer from Ecuador at Make the Road New Yorks offices, says he has U.S. citizenship because his dad is Puerto Rican. Still, he says he regularly attends organizations calling sessions because he has friends and family who live without papers and has seen how they struggle to get jobs and educational opportunities.
What I do is not much, he says, but with the heart and the soul, you can achieve thousands of projects.