Undocumented student activist wants public to wake up to the DREAM

Flickr photo by Jake Prendez. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jakeprendez/382103683/in/photostream/

For nine years, federal lawmakers have been shooting down the DREAM Act, legislation aimed at providing the children of undocumented immigrants with a path to permanent residency status – and an opportunity to access public universities at the same cost as citizens.

Last Wednesday, December 8, the DREAM Act passed the House of Representatives by a narrow margin: 216 to 198.

However, the bill has not become law yet. It must pass the Senate first. If it does pass, undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools will be given a chance to obtain temporary legal status in the U.S. And if they go on to complete two years of military training or two years at a university, these students can apply for permanent residency.

JOSE ARREOLA: As I get older, as I try to look to college, that’s when it starts becoming an overwhelming kind of burden.

Jose Arreola is the student outreach coordinator with Educators for Fair Consideration, an organizations that helps immigrant and undocumented youth get to college. Arrela knows about all this firsthand. He came to the U.S. with his mother when he was three and grew up in Mountain View. His father was already working here.

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JOSE ARREOLA: I don't think, at least initially when we came out, I don't think we had any plans of staying. I think the thoughts initially were that we would go back at some point. But we ended up overstaying the Visa, obviously. And then that created, that ended up creating the situation that you know, I had to really confront for the rest of my life.

HOLLY KERNAN: When did you become conscious of the fact that you didn't have legal status in the U.S.?

ARREOLA: I think my mother in particular was very honest about it with me from a very early age.

KERNAN: Like how early?

ARREOLA: I would say since five, six years old. And even though at that moment, I really didn't understand the political ramifications, the historical context of what that meant. The way it was communicated to me was basically that I had to be very careful about telling people where we were from, and that if anyone asked or had questions to not tell them, or to make something up, or whatever the situation would call for.

I would ask, "Why? Why can't I tell people where I'm from?" Or things like that. And the response was, at least from the perspective of a young child, was that people would come and take my mother or father away. Or that we had to go back to Mexico, which obviously with the imagination of a young child, could be pretty devastating, pretty traumatizing, actually. So that's the earliest sense that I had that I was different.

KERNAN: And how did that affect your sense of identity? Looking at you and talking with you, you look like an American kid to me. You sound like an American kid. How did that affect your perception of who you are/

ARREOLA: It was tough. I think that what was most difficult was that there was a reality, there was something that I faced. They had everything to do with who I was, the way I interacted, the way that I saw the world, my status, the fact that I wasn't able to do a lot of things, right? These were limitations that just by looking at me, you might not be able to know, but that still existed but that I couldn't share with people. I could not tell people this reality, something that I faced and something that at least as a young child, doesn't affect you on a day-to-day basis so much. Particularly because in the neighborhood that I grew up in, a lot of the folks that I was with and obviously a lot of people in my family kind of confronted the same thing. But as I get older, as I try to look to college, as I try to look to get a career to work, that's when it starts becoming a really overwhelming burden.

KERNAN: When you get to high school?

ARREOLA: Yeah, I would say around high school.

KERNAN: So what was going through your head in high school?

ARREOLA: Well, I think that for me, I've always been, I've always loved learning. I think that that's something that was instilled in me as a very young age. I enjoy going to school and all that. I wasn't the best student in the world, at least starting high school. But I did enjoy learning, and I think that's something that my parents both really, really instilled in me from a young age, that education is something that no one can ever take away from you and that it is critical in terms of moving forward in the world. And so, as I start to understand more and more about the college process and what it takes and what are the requirements...

KERNAN: So what was your path to college, then?

ARREOLA: So my path to college was ... the only way that I was able to go to college was through private scholarships.

KERNAN: Did you ever consider not going to college because of your undocumented status?

ARREOLA: I don't think the thought ever crossed my mind of, "I'm not going to college." It was just a lot of, "How am I going to make this happen?" A lot of times there was just an enormous amount of frustration, feeling disillusioned because I received actually offers from many different scholarships, but come to find out later that I wasn't eligible. So all that is just really disheartening. I think about, actually the movie that comes to mind is The Pursuit of Happiness with Will Smith. I think the one thing that really resonates in that narrative is that you know, things are bad and just when it seems like things can't get any worse, they somehow find a way to get worse. And I think I identify a lot with that. That it's one obstacle after another, after another. And it takes a toll, absolutely – emotionally, physically, spiritually.

KERNAN: But your story has a happy ending. Where did you go to college? Where did you graduate?

ARREOLA: I attended Santa Clara University with a full scholarship and just graduated in June with a degree in political science and history.

KERNAN: Congratulations.

ARREOLA: Thank you.

KERNAN: And Jose, what do you say to people who say that it's not fair for people to come into this country, overstay a visa, and then expect to have exactly the same treatment from the educational system, etc. – that's not fair. What do you say to somebody who has that argument?

ARREOLA: One thing that is I think really problematic about our discussion around immigration, around the DREAM Act, around undocumented students in this country is that the political discourse has a lot of experts, has a lot of pundits but very, very few immigrants, so that the entire political conversation is actually a little I think dishonest. I think for someone to talk about the realities of immigrants and the lives of immigrants and what that means without ever A. living it or B. knowing someone who's gone through that, is hard. So I understand that in the absence of that narrative, someone might believe that, that things are really that simple. Obviously they're not. What I would say to that individual is that I didn't have a choice in terms of whether or not I came here. I was just brought here, and I didn't have a choice whether or not I was born.

And so I'm not asking for anything, I'm not asking for amnesty, as some people have put it. I'm simply asking for the same opportunity as anyone else who has grown up in this country their entire lives, who has made it through the education system as I have, who now has a degree from college ... all I would like is an opportunity to work, an opportunity to work and give back and contribute to the same country that has given me so much in terms of opportunity. And so I think what is unfair, what is unjust is that we continue to deny that to millions, literally millions, of young folks. That's what I would say to that.

KERNAN: So Jose, as Congress now may take up the DREAM Act, what do you think is at stake here?

ARREOLA: I think, especially given the hard economic times that the country's going through, that I've heard a lot of people kind of talk about or ask, "Is the American dream still alive?" And as one of the foundational pillars of U.S., of American values, is it still alive? And I have to believe, and this is not simply because I've lived through it but because now in the work that I do, interact with, speak with and try and help support families all over the Bay Area, that I have to believe that if the American dream is still alive, then it has to be alive in the hearts and minds of undocumented students, these DREAM students who are trying to make it to college. Quintessential – there is no pure example, and so I think to pass the DREAM Act whether it passes now or whether we pass something else in the future, is not simply a vote for those students but a vote that kind of reminds us as a society that this value is still important, that this dream is still alive.

And I think the last thing I would like to leave is that regardless of what happens with the DREAM Act, whether it passes or not, that my organization and many organizations like it, Educators for Fair Consideration – we'll still be here. Regardless of what the outcome may be legislatively that students are still going to need support and students are still going to need happen, and we're going to be here to provide that as best we can, and I hope the community doesn't lose hope simply because the DREAM Act doesn't pass. I think there's alwyas a way. I think that my story and the stories of thousands of others are testaments to that. There is always a way. The only thing I always tell students before I sign off on an email or sign off on a presentation or phone call is I tell students that they're not alone, and don't ever surrender your dreams.