Their hunger strike is over after 13 days, ended when one of them was hospitalized with heat stroke and exhaustion. But for the three young women who were encamped in Raleigh until Monday night, subsisting on water and sports drinks to call attention to their cause, the fight for immigration reform continues. "We grew weaker, but our spirits grew stronger," Rosario Lopez told 100 people who attended a final fellowship gathering. "Let's keep the dream alive."
Lopez, Viridiana Martinez and Loida Silva stopped eating on June 14 to protest the lack of congressional action on immigration, and in particular on legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a path to American citizenship. They wanted Kay Hagan, North Carolina's Democratic senator, to sponsor it. (They didn't bother trying to convince Richard Burr, our Republican senator.) That was their dream—to become citizens of the country they love.
The DREAM Act—it stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act—has four requirements, according to Jeff Shaw, a spokesman for the N.C. Justice Center. A person must have entered the country before age 16, graduated high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character and no criminal record and have five years' continuous presence in the country.
If so, he or she is given conditional residency status and has six years to complete two years of military service or a two-year community college degree, after which the person could apply for citizenship.
When Silva fell ill on Sunday in the sweltering heat, the others and their supporters had the good sense to end the action. Hagan, through a spokesman, had turned them down flat, saying that she's only interested in "comprehensive immigration reform." In pressuring Hagan, though, the strikers were able to make the case for the DREAM Act in media across the state and beyond.
"They did a great job," said Ilana Dubester, a longtime immigrant rights advocate in Chatham County, "and they succeeded in what they set out to do, to build understanding about what the DREAM Act is and why it's needed. I'm excited about their plans to go on the road to talk about their experiences and to motivate others to join them in this struggle."
Nothing would've been gained, Dubester added, by risking their lives trying to coerce Hagan into something she obviously wasn't going to do willingly.
On the other hand, a supporter from Carrboro, Justin Valas, was sure that even Hagan's consciousness must've been raised. "Just think about how many conversations Sen. Hagan's staffers were having about those crazy kids in Raleigh," Valas said, "because you know they were talking about them."
The thing about those crazy kids in Raleigh is, they weren't crazy at all, though the situation they confront in our country is totally nuts.
The three "fierce, sweet, stubborn, strong women," as their friend and strike companion Robyn Burge described them, all grew up in North Carolina, graduated from their respective high schools with honors and went on to be successful in community colleges—and in the case of Rosario Lopez, in college. Lopez, who at 25 is the oldest of the three, graduated from Southern High School in Durham, Alamance Community College and UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor's degree in biology.
However, because their parents entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas, the three are treated as undocumented aliens themselves, even though their presence here is their parents' doing; thus, they cannot obtain valid Social Security numbers.
This means, for Lopez, that she can't be accepted to graduate school, in part because she wouldn't pass the security clearance required to work in a university laboratory. For Martinez, who is 23, and Silva, 22, it means they can't attend state universities except by paying out-of-state tuition rates that they can't afford.
Does it mean they can't work? Not at all, and they do work, just not at desirable jobs commensurate with their abilities or aspirations. The simple fact is, all the "good" jobs require a SSN and a background check. But many employers aren't so picky, and the federal government isn't picky either: It won't issue SSNs, but it will issue federal tax ID numbers so undocumented folks can work, have their taxes withheld (including Social Security taxes that they'll never get back) and file returns at the end of the year.
Can we be any more cynical than that?
Lopez did pay out-of-state tuition at UNC, she said, aided by a donor who wanted to remain anonymous. Perhaps the donor recognized that a girl who arrived in Durham at age 13 speaking no English—but nonetheless earned A's in science and math by working with the numbers and the few English words that resembled Spanish—might just have a brain our country needed.
Lopez would like to earn her doctorate. Didn't I see somewhere that our country is chronically short of scientists? But our universities do accept students from other countries on the understanding that when they finish their degrees, they'll go back where they came from—taking their knowledge, and their paychecks, with them.
It must be a bad dream. It is certainly not smart, nor—to use an old-fashioned word—fair to treat people this way, who have done nothing wrong and everything right.
It's not even smart politics, as far as former Chatham County Commissioner Gary Phillips is concerned. "It seems politically old-worldly," said Phillips, a Democrat and Dubester's husband, referring to the fact that Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of voters despite the country's xenophobia. "What we have now is a lot of people captured by meanness" on the anti-immigration side of the debate, "but most of the population is better than that, and Sen. Hagan needs to realize it."
The DREAM Act is not amnesty, and that isn't what the three hunger strikers are seeking. "We don't want a free ride," Martinez said Monday, repeating something she heard the absent Silva say in interview after interview, "we just want a chance to earn our citizenship."