A handful of college students with undocumented immigration status and big career goals gathered Wednesday at the Bothell campus of the University of Washington to urge 1st Congressional District Rep. Suzan DelBene to work for immigration reform and in particular, the passage of the DREAM Act.
Four young men from the Everett area and a young woman from Kirkland encouraged the freshman Democrat to tell their stories of living as illegal immigrants in the only country they've ever known. DelBene is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which is in the midst of immigration reform hearings.
"I am sorry that, at age 4, I did not tell my mother that we were doing something wrong when we moved to the United States," said Tania Santiago, 22, a pre-law student at UW in Seattle. "The reality is that all of us here today are products of this country. We are hard-working American students."
She said she works 30 to 55 hours a week, donates community service hours on top of that and carries a full load of classes. Because she is termed an illegal immigrant, she can't get student loans and she lives in fear of being deported to a country she doesn't remember.
Pedro Nunez, 19, a graduate of Mariner High School, studies at Edmonds Community College. His family applied for immigration and citizenship in 1999.
"I was only 5 years old when I moved to Everett (from Mexico). I never realized how important the undocumented part of my life was until high school graduation came around," Nunez said. "I want to be a mechanical engineer and work for Boeing. Just imagine going to public school and having teachers encourage you to do your best. You apply to the college of your dreams and get accepted, only to realize you can't go there because you're illegal. The current system is broken. We are wanted for cheap labor, but we are capable of so much more. It is a disservice to our country to not let us reach our goals."
Ray Corona, 21 of Everett, is a student UW Bothell. He waits tables to help his family make ends meet and works at the university to fund his education.
"Before we even came here from Mexico, my dad filed the papers to immigrate and begin the process to earn citizenship. That was in 1989. He is still waiting to hear back," Corona said. "We have emotional stories to tell, but these are the facts. We contribute to our communities, we are good students and we would make good employees in this state."
The DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, was first introduced in Congress in 2001 as a way to grant permanent residency to children who grew up in the United States but whose parents are illegal immigrants.
People opposed to the proposed legislation argue that it would encourage other people to move their families to the U.S. illegally.
In June, President Barack Obama enacted an administrative maneuver called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that partially achieves the goals of the DREAM act.
Under deferred action, people are eligible for immunity from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16, are younger than 31, have been in the country for at least five consecutive years, have no criminal history and have graduated from high school or served in the military. There is an expensive application fee and it requires getting fingerprinted and filling out a lot of paperwork, but as of mid-December, about 356,000 young people nationwide have been granted the deferment.
"Deferred action, however, is only a temporary Band-Aid for this issue," said Corona, who showed DelBene his Social Security card and his deferred action identification card. "The card looks like a work permit and it has an expiration date. We know we are not the only people in this country who struggle, but as undocumented students, we have many fewer options for our future. We believe we have earned the right to have the options enjoyed by others."
DelBene told the students that she will share their stories with her congressional colleagues.
"You aspire to be great contributors to this country, and that is part of the American dream," DelBene said.
Leobardo Carmona and Geovanni Olalde, Everett Community College students who both came here from Mexico, said they are happy to tell their stories, despite the unease of revealing their immigration status. Both are the first ones in their families to graduate from high school and attend college.
An honors student at Everett High School, Carmona plans to transfer to a university to earn a degree in computer science. Olalde wants to be a doctor and work at Seattle Children's Hospital.
The young men have taken time to visit high schools in the region to encourage other illegal immigrants to pursue post-secondary education.
"Something has to be done now to provide a way for us to be secure in this country, our country," Carmona said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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