Where are we with the DREAM?

July 23, 2012

Sonia Guinansaca and Anayely Gomez are members of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), a membership-led organization of undocumented youth whose primary goal is to win passage of the DREAM Act--legislation that would provide a restricted path to citizenship for undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children. NYSYLC is affiliated with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, whose members recently held sit-ins at Obama campaign offices across the country.

Sonia and Anayely sat down for separate interviews to discuss the protests and the immigrant youth movement. The roundtable was edited for publication here by Danny Lucia.

CAN YOU start by telling me your name and how you got involved in the movement to pass the DREAM Act?

Anayely: My name is Anayely Gomez. I am 24 years old. I am undocumented. I didn't come out and say I was undocumented until about a year ago just because I was afraid. But then I saw a lot of clips on the news and things like that of undocumented students coming out and sharing their stories.

So I attended the NYSYLC, and when I saw their very inspiring stories, I decided to join the movement. At that time, I was going to Brooklyn College, and it was my last semester, so I needed help in trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college, and things like that just because of my status.

Sonia: My name is Sonia Guinansaca. I'm a board member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council. I got involved in the movement early after I graduated from high school, realizing that there wasn't any space for undocumented youth like me, going through the college application process and bumping into closed doors left and right. I was involved in community work, but it was never relevant to undocumented youth or immigration.

A sit-in protester closes down Obama 2012 campaign headquarters in Cincinnati
A sit-in protester closes down Obama 2012 campaign headquarters in Cincinnati

I got involved because I found a space that was for me, for undocumented youth, and I wanted to speak out and be unafraid about my undocumented status. I hope that what I had to go through, being dehumanized, feeling like my life was stepped over--I don't want that to be repeated with the new generation that might turn to depression because of the same situation we all go through, being undocumented.

HOW HAS being in the movement affected you?

Anayely: Being in the movement has been very empowering to come out and share my story. I am less afraid of ICE and telling my story publicly to others, to the media, to my friends. It's very empowering. And it has made me very angry, too, to find out the core issues that have been going on behind this--like the corruption and taking advantage of undocumented people working here. And the fact that the DREAM Act has been on the table since 2001, and nothing has been happening with it.

Sonia: It has helped me acknowledge my undocumented status and reclaim my story. It has helped me understand that I am a powerful voice, and like many others, we have the power to change many policies and the structure of things that have been marginalizing and oppressing many in our communities.

So the movement has affected me by creating a great leader. It has been a very supportive place, and I feel like I am part of it. It has made me strong and unafraid and unapologetic.

HAVE YOU seen policy changes from the Bush administration to the Obama administration?

Sonia: I think it's the same. We went into the presidency of Obama thinking that there was going to be so much change and hope. But in reality, Obama deported people on numerous occasions, and the numbers keep rising, so there hasn't been any change. If anything, I think matters have gotten worse. I mean, look at our communities right now. We have Secure Communities, we have all these bills being passed on the local level, and nationally, our communities are still being targeted.

Just look at some of the promises that Obama made. He promised to push and hope that the DREAM Act will become a reality within his first term or first 100 days in his presidency. But it hasn't happened to this day. In 2010, the DREAM Act failed to pass. Was President Obama very vocal about it? No, he wasn't.

ON JUNE 5, activists staged sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in Denver, Oakland and other cities. Could you talk about what led to this action and the history of the movement up to that point?

Anayely: The National Immigrant Youth Alliance decided that we have to push the president to issue an executive order and stop the deportations of undocumented youth.

About a year ago, the administration came out with the John Morton memo, saying that we would be low priority in deportation proceedings. [Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement head John Morton announced that the agency would begin using "prosecutorial discretion" to stop deporting undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records. This was widely seen as directed toward students who would have been helped by the DREAM Act, which failed to pass in Congress the previous year.]

But we kept getting cases of undocumented youth being deported. So they felt that we needed to stand up and do something about it. By having sit-ins in his campaign offices to bring some attention, we were hoping for him to push to sign an executive order to stop deportations.

Sonia: We have always been very forceful about the DREAM Act, but at the same time, we have always also been very vocal about numerous deportation cases that are always at hand. The National Immigrant Youth Alliance has been launching programs like Education Not Deportation and Secure Your Own Community, which have been literally stopping deportations of family members of youth, people from our communities.

We kept seeing this rise of low-priority cases being targeted, and to this day, we still see undocumented youth being put into deportation proceedings. Nationally, many people have been silenced, and so I think that "undocuppying" Obama's offices was needed. This was something that was instrumental in making sure that our communities can survive. We are being vocal about how many cases and how many people are being put into deportation proceedings, and that President Obama has failed to do anything about it.

TEN DAYS after the initial sit-ins in the campaign offices, Obama made an announcement about deferred action for deportations of undocumented youth. This was widely seen as the administration implementing the DREAM Act by executive order, if on a temporary basis of two years. Why is the Youth Leadership Council calling for continued pressure against Obama?

Sonia: I think his move in bringing this deferred action was a way of regaining those Latino votes. So we at the New York State Youth Leadership Council take this announcement with skepticism.

We heard about the Morton memo, the prosecutorial discretion that was supposed to happen last year, and it didn't. We were still getting calls about cases of family members, of a mother who was in a domestic violence situation and when she called the cops, immigration immediately got involved, because they also found out she was undocumented.

We have to be very cautious about this kind of thing. It is definitely a step forward. It acknowledges the power and the pressure that undocumented youth nationally have put. But we have to be very careful about how we receive it, knowing that these kinds of promises have been made many times. Until we see it being implemented, until we see those deportation numbers going down, then we cannot greet this announcement very happily. And if nothing changes, then we are definitely prepared for direct action.

Anayely: This is only temporary relief. It is only for two years, and if you qualify, you can actually get work authorization and get deferred action. But there are specific requirements: You had to have come to the country before the age of 16. You have to be less than 30 years old as of June 15. You have to have no criminal record, and you must be planning to attend college or the military. And you need to have graduated from a U.S. high school or gotten a GED. It's the same DREAM Act qualifications, basically.

It's a great thing that he is giving us some type of relief. But it isn't an executive order, it is just a policy, and it can be changed at any time.. So we don't know what is going to happen if, let's say, Romney gets elected. This can be taken away at any moment. In two years, what is going to happen to us if Obama decides to change the policy?

So it's a very good thing, but then again, we have a lot of questions about how it is going to be implemented. What we've been calling for is to not stop the movement. This is only temporary relief, and we need permanent relief. So therefore, we are going to keep fighting for the federal DREAM Act. We are not going to let this stop us from actually reaching our goal.

WOULD YOU say there has been a shift towards a more militant approach to show the urgency of passing the DREAM Act?

Anayely: I think there has been a shift. The DREAM Act has been on the table since 2001, and we are already in 2012, and it failed in 2010, where we could have passed it, when the majority of the Senate was Democratic. We were so close--we were only five votes away, and then it didn't happen.

I think it's more the frustration of youth at this point that's why we are willing to take these risks, we are willing to have sit-ins, we are willing to get arrested. Because we've been waiting for this for so long, and now we need something to happen soon.

HOW WOULD you respond to those who would say that activists shouldn't protest Obama because it might cost him votes and help Mitt Romney win in November?

Anayely: I don't think we are protesting the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. What we are doing is asking Obama to stand up and fulfill the promises he's made. He is very open about saying that he supports the DREAM Act, and that he supports undocumented youth. Well, now he needs to take a stand.

At this point, we are angry at the whole entire system. It isn't just the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Something needs to change because it's our lives that they're playing with. And if Romney gets elected, we are going to protest him--we aren't attacking a particular party.

THERE ARE various criticisms within the immigrant justice movement about the DREAM Act. One of them is about military service component of the legislation. Another is that the language of the DREAM Act divides undocumented immigrants into categories like "good students" vs. "bad workers"--or people with criminal records. How would you respond to these criticisms?

Sonia: When we look at the criticisms, we have to be very careful in terms of how we receive them. Because these are not criticisms of the immigrant rights movement or the undocumented youth-led movement--they are criticisms of the DREAM Act language itself.

The DREAM Act was introduced by politicians. We have to be very careful about that. The talking points were created by politicians, and much of the language still consists of "illegal aliens" or "illegal students," so even I criticize the DREAM Act. In 2010, the DREAM Act that was being put up for a vote was a watered-down version of what we envisioned. It didn't have the community service provision, and so I am definitely aware of the criticism of the military service component, and we all should pay attention to that.

But at the end of the day, I always say the education part of it is what we are pushing for. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is about creating equal access to higher education for undocumented youth. We are very vocal that if there was ever a version of the DREAM Act with only the military component, that's not something that we would support.

Some of the talking points have been created by people in Washington about the good DREAMers and bad DREAMers, good students and bad workers. I think we've been very intentional in moving away from those narratives. It's not about the student with the 4.0 grade point average who deserves to stay more than the other student who had a DUI charge or who tried to commit suicide and who isn't that perfect story.

So we are very intentional about moving away from those talking points, because the talking points were not created by us. We have been very vocal to this day about even moving away from the word DREAMer, because it suggest that we are focused on the DREAM Act, but we are beyond that--we are talking about our families. If the DREAM Act were to pass, we aren't going to forget our parents.

So we are being very intentional about creating a different narrative and deconstructing those myths that we're selfish or we just focus on ourselves, or we're just focusing on the 4.0 GPA students who went to Harvard. The reality is that undocumented youth have different stories, and my story does not reflect that talking point. The movement itself is an ongoing, changing, morphing movement. So I'm glad at this point we have moved away from those narratives.

Anayely: I feel like for some DREAMers or undocumented youth, that is one of their dreams--to join the military, to join the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, and that also goes into being a good DREAMer: fighting for the country that raised you. Personally, I think it's better to go to college and get your education and things like that. It's up to that individual person if they want to join the military.

To your second question, about categorizing "good" and "bad" undocumented youth: First, if you do have a criminal record and you have a felony, I think you should not be in this country. There's a difference between the smaller crimes, and you should be allowed to say if it was something very petty.

HOW HAS the expansion of Secure Communities influenced and added to the urgency of activism for DREAMers?

Anayely: Secure Communities recently was implemented in New York City, which is a very scary thing. If you get arrested, they will put you in deportation proceedings if they don't find that you are legally supposed to be in the country.

So on a nationwide level, activists are coming out with a new campaign called Secure Your Own Community (SYOC) to empower our communities and teach them their rights so police won't take advantage of them. It's a very scary thing that the Supreme Court actually upheld that component with the SB 1070 that allows police officers to stop and ask people for papers just because they suspect that they might be undocumented.

So we are in a very scary place right now as immigrants, but that's why we are going out there, and we're making sure we are sharing this information with out communities.

DO YOU see any potential for expanding the tactics of civil disobedience to fight against the Secure Communities program as well, specifically in New York?

Anayely: Since it has been implemented, we haven't heard of any cases of police officers actually using this program. But if it gets to a point where we feel like our communities are being attacked, and it is more of a racial profiling thing than anything else, yes, I think we are going to have to hit the streets and make sure that this will change, because it isn't right that they can be attacking our communities.

WAS THERE anything else you'd like to add about the deferred action announcement, or the future of the Movement?

Anayely: With the deferred action, we are going to have to wait and see in the next 60 days how this is going to work out. We are very optimistic that we are going to be able to get our working permits and finally start working in the jobs and the fields we are trying to get into. We have a lot to contribute to our communities. We are just being held back because we don't have this piece of paper.

As far as the DREAM movement, we are still fighting for the federal DREAM Act. We aren't going to stop just because we are getting temporary relief. We need something permanent, and if we need to take more actions and escalate, we are willing to do so.

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