"I can remember that night walking across the mountains. The night was silent. We were told we would see red lights. I looked ahead and we were almost there."
José Torres Don stood on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro earlier this month and told a crowd of demonstrators about his childhood journey from Mexico to the U.S.: "What I didn't see is that America would deny our existence years later."
Torres Don belongs to the N.C. Dream Team, also known as "the Dreamers," a group of undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen allies, who are petitioning Congress to pass the DREAM Act. The group recently rallied in Greensboro to support the federal legislation and to openly declare their undocumented status.
An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. each year, but because of their status, can't attend college, work or join the military.
The DREAM Act would offer a conditional, six-year path to citizenship to young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children without proper documentation. Applicants must have arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16; they must graduate from high school and plan to attend college or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years. They must also have "good moral character," which, while vague, is assumed to mean the immigrants cannot have been convicted of any felonies.
Since these immigrants have lived most of their lives in the U.S., they have nothing to return to in their native countries. Their friends and family are here. They are bicultural and often bilingual.
José Rico came to Raleigh with his parents when he was 13 after his father was laid off from his factory job in Reynosa, a border town near McAllen, Texas. Rico, who didn't speak English, felt isolated in the U.S. "My mother said it would get getter. I believed her. They wanted the best for their children."
And it did get better—for a while. Rico learned English and excelled in high school. Rico approached his guidance counselor about enrolling in college. "I asked what are the possibilities of a student like me with a 3.9 grade point average going to college if he's undocumented," Rico recalls. "She said, 'It's not possible. But you're not in that situation.' I decided at that point to say, yes, I am undocumented."
He was able to attend Wake Tech for two years, but at the exorbitant expense of paying out-of-state tuition, which is four to five times higher than the rates charged to North Carolina residents.
"I was just like the other students," Rico said. "I cared about my education and my community. We're being hurt. We are real people trying to work for our communities."
Undocumented immigrants have risked deportation for being open about their legal status and political activism. Two North Carolina Dreamers, Pedro Guzmán of Durham and Fredd Reyes of Thomasville, are being detained in an immigration facility in Georgia. The two men were brought by their parents to the U.S. from Guatamala; both could qualify for refugee status, but immigration officials have reportedly either denied or blocked their applications.
And the hostility the Dreamers face from anti-immigrant organizations cannot be overstated. Last June, Rosario Lopez, Loida Silva and Viridiana Martinez went on a hunger strike near the legislative building in Raleigh. The Civitas Institute's blog, an arm of the right-wing Art Pope empire, posted video of the campsite, calling it a "siesta on state property." The blog criticized state and city officials for allowing "illegal immigrants to camp on state property" and to "graduate from our state-funded universities." The Raleigh-based Americans for Legal Immigration sends daily, ominous missives against undocumented immigrants that are intended to rally the conservative base. ALI-PAC erroneously stated the DREAM Act "would reward millions of illegal aliens with amnesty, citizenship, and voting rights that would destabilize American politics and displace millions of American voters."
However, the DREAM Act is neither a giveaway nor amnesty, said Jack Holtzman, a staff attorney at the N.C. Justice Center who specializes in immigration and education. "Its requirements are fairly onerous. There are screenings and restrictions and it does not make the U.S. a home for criminals.
"They're putting themselves on the line for a problem society has to address," Holtzman added. "There is no higher commitment than what they're doing."
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill—not part of a larger immigration legislation. "I hope it's not symbolic," says Holtzman. "I hope that Congress has the political will and foresight to pass the DREAM Act."
North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, has consistently opposed the DREAM Act. She favors "comprehensive immigration reform," although Congress has failed to seriously address what those reforms would entail.
The N.C. Dream Team has vigorously petitioned Hagan to support the legislation, but a press spokesman for Hagan told the Indy this week she will not vote for Reid's measure.
Justin Valas, a Carrboro resident and U.S. citizen, co-founded the N.C. Dream Team. He says the Dreamers' theme of "Let Us Serve" extends beyond military service. "Nurses, teachers, they're all giving back to the community in some way. They want a chance to learn and to serve. Sen. Hagan and others are standing in the way of that."
In North Carolina, the Dreamers could encounter even higher political hurdles when the Republican-controlled Legislature convenes in January. Conservative lawmakers could try to prohibit the state's community colleges and public universities from accepting undocumented students under any circumstances.
Alicia Torres Don, who came here with her parents and her brother, José, was able to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing. But without a Social Security number, she cannot work in her field..
"I cannot serve this country," she said. "But today I stand here. I am undocumented. I am unafraid."