Every June for the past 12 years, undocumented students from around the country have traveled to Washington D.C.to urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act, holding a “mock graduation ceremony” followed by lobby visits to their respective Congresspersons. This year was no different, with The National Immigrant Youth Alliance bringing over 500 undocumented students from at least 17 states down to the Capitol. And this year, we also had Andres Benach from Benach Ragland LLP, talk to a self-selected group of students about Obama’s deferred action policy, clearing up some misconceptions and dishing out great legal information.
The ceremony was held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, blocks from the Supreme Court of the United States and Congress, to send the message that while the deferred action policy may provide many of those in attendance a temporary protection, we have to continue to press Congress and the federal government to affirm human rights and find a permanent solution for the immigrant community
Graduation has historically been a bittersweet event for many undocumented youth, unable to move forward. The “mock graduation” – now called the National Dream Graduation – symbolizes the estimated 70,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, unable to pursue higher education because they lack papers. This year was a bit different. Due to the hard organizing work of many young undocumented people around the country, President Obama has issued a directive to not deport undocumented youth, and instead, allowed us to come forward affirmatively and apply for deferred action, which would then enable people to get work permits and driver’s licenses. Yesterday, Andres told students at the graduation that there was little reason to not come forward and apply if they are eligible.
“If you are unafraid enough to sit in Senator McCain’s office, there is no reason that you should be afraid to apply [for deferred action],” he assured the young people in the room, answering their many intelligent questions with regards to the new policy.
While deferred action is certainly not enough, for the first time in history, many of these young people are graduating and will graduate with hope and dreams of a future. And even if they don’t graduate with high hopes and dreams of a future, I think Kemi Bello, a friend and undocumented youth from Texas, sums it up best:
“I urge you to challenge the traditional notion of the milestones we must meet in life in order to be successful. Whether it takes you 4 years or 7 to finish college, or you decide not to go at all, or are not able to go; whether you wear your “I Am Undocumented” shirt to the grocery store or have only told one person that you are undocumented; whether you are working 3 jobs or are organizing full-time – own your story, own your experience and never apologize for how different your life has turned out to be from some pre-determined ‘norm.’ For it is the uniqueness of our individual stories and experiences that makes our collective story as undocumented youth so powerful.”
Indeed, the event was one of a kind, with unique individual stories that did not fit the norm. Dulce Guerrero (GA), Viridiana Martinez (NC) and Cynthia Martinez did wonders MC-ing. Marco Saavedra from Ohio owned the room with his powerful rendition of Langston Hughes for the convocation. Alejandra Pimentel, a mother fighting her son’s deportation, shared some great words with us, telling us that her dream was our success and that we should never give up. Little J shared the poem he wrote for Michelle Obama that he couldn’t share it with her because he lacked a social security number. Alicia Torres had a vital message for everyone in the movement to nurture themselves so that they could be a source of positive energy. Even YOLO made it to the graduation, thanks to Vicko Alvaro from USAS.
And of course, 10 minutes before the start of the event, I found out that I had the honor (and terrifying duty) of delivering the commencement speech to 500 people. I decided that jaded activist humor was the way to go. It seems to have worked, or at least, I don’t have any displeased emails. Even Pastor Wilker kindly told me later that he enjoyed my speech and that the Lutheran Church welcomes LGBT people.
Most of my friends were riled up and denouncing the Supreme Court, SB 1070 ruling, which actually is not a bad decision, but a pleasantly good one. President Obama’s policies like Secure Communities (S-COMM) and his record-breaking deportation of over 1 million people is what deserves continued denunciation even as we welcome his decision to grant deferred action to an estimated 1.4 million young people. We’ve made progress, but the work continues.
The National Dream Graduation is usually the one of the only times when undocumented youth activists from around the country who work together virtually get to be in the same room with one another. I remember meeting Walter Lara, Maria Marroquin, Kemi, Bello, Cintia Felix and so many other impressive young people for the first time at my first National Dream Graduation in Washington D.C. in 2009. It seems like such a long time ago, even though it has only been three years.
This year, I saw some old friends for the first time in ages. I also met some new people such as young South Asian American immigrant activists Yves Gomes and Ashwini Jaisingh from Casa de la Maryland. My own partner spoke on behalf of her Congressperson! And I had the pleasure of running into Tim, a U.S. citizen, whose partner is languishing in detention in Michigan, highlighting the need for immigration relief for same-sex bi-national couples. I hope we are able to get his partner the help he needs so that they can continue to stay together. That would certainly be the cherry on top of the icing of a truly great event.
Author: Prerna Lal, a 3L at the George Washington University Law School, is a summer law clerk at Benach Ragland LLP.