10 25 2014
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(CNN) -- When Erika Andiola's mother and brother were detained by immigration agents this month, she jumped to action.

She summoned the help of undocumented youths like herself, known as DREAMers, and within hours, immigration officials were flooded with dozens of phone calls.

Andiola's mother and brother were released.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the detention of the pair and their eventual release had nothing to do with Andiola's activism.

But that does not dampen her spirit. As far as she is concerned, the DREAMers snatched her mother from the brink of deportation.

"For us to get them to do that, it takes a lot of pressure," she said.

Her work, along with other DREAMers, has increasingly become a powerful voice shaping discussions on immigration reform, which President Obama has vowed to pass in his second term.

Dubbed DREAMers, their name is derived from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which, if passed, would have granted some undocumented immigrant youth legal status in return for attending college or joining the military.

In 2009, DREAMers knocked on doors and begged for support of the DREAM Act, a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for certain youth who came to the United States as children and live in the country illegally.

Today, the movement is enjoying a certain amount of clout.

Andiola tapped into the DREAMer network to aid in the return of her mother and brother. But her activism also got her a job with newly elected Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Last summer, the Democrats gave the DREAMers their biggest stage, at the Democratic National Convention. Benita Veliz became the first undocumented immigrant to give a speech at the convention, sharing her story of a high achiever with limited opportunities because of her status.

It's not just Democrats who are listening.

When Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, announced a new immigration proposal this month, he made a point to mention that he had consulted with DREAMers.

As Rubio began working on legislation to address the issue, his staff bounced the proposals by DREAM activists, said the senator's press secretary, Alex Conant.

"We believe there is broad support for letting people who came to the U.S. at a young age, grew up here and are undocumented through no fault of their own stay in the country," Conant said. "We will continue to seek their input as we work on a legislation to legalize their status."

State and national conferences are bringing undocumented immigrant youths together and introducing them to the halls of power.

"The power has been there, what is happening now is that that power is being showcased," said Jose Luis Zelaya, a graduate student at Texas A&M University and DREAM activist.

He says the movement is more organized than before, thanks to partnerships with more experienced organizations, and years of lobbying.

"We have planted a seed and hard work and dedication," Zelaya said. "Maybe a year ago we didn't see the fruit, but only because the tree was still growing."

In 2009 and 2010, Zelaya was among those who lobbied Congress for the DREAM Act. Back then, Zelaya remembers the activists "running from coast to coast, looking for recognition."

The bill ultimately failed, but the DREAM activists did not lose their momentum, and continued to lobby. Last year, when President Obama issued an executive order granting a temporary reprieve for eligible undocumented youth to apply for a two-year work permit, it gave the group credibility, they say.

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The president's deferred action policy, similar to the proposed DREAM Act, "gave us breathing room," Zelaya said.

It also raised the profiles of the activists.

As Zelaya waited for his work permit, he began crocheting to make ends meet. He was invited to Miami to talk about his crochet business on Univision. The hosts surprised him on camera with his work permit.

Off camera, some DREAMers find themselves juggling schedules filled with speeches, interviews and conferences at the state and national level.

Now, tracking down leaders like Andiola requires going through a press officer.

Many believed the DREAMers were fighting for a lost cause after the DREAM Act didn't get the needed votes, Andiola said. But they persisted. "We've been able to prove a lot of people wrong," she said.

Their next challenge is to lobby for immigration reform that would go beyond border security and help keep immigrant families from being separated, they say.

To their critics, who bristle that a group of undocumented immigrants have found an audience among politicians, activists and journalists, Andiola advises that they, too, organize.

"We really want to empower the community, not just the undocumented community," she said.

™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

 

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