MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our next story in today's Rookies show is about newcomers in the political world. More specifically in a political debate that's been raging since -- well, basically, since the founding of our nation. Namely, who should be allowed into the country? And who can legitimately be called American? Next week, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to turn its attention to those very questions as it considers a major overhaul of the nation's immigration system. And as Jacob Fenston tells us, some of the people helping shape this year's debate would barely be old enough to vote, if they were citizens.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Raymond Jose came to Maryland from the Philippines 13 years ago, when he was just 9 years old.
MR. RAYMOND JOSE
I found out about my immigration status my senior year of high school.
His hard work at school was paying off, he'd gotten into college and he found out he'd been offered three scholarships.
From Penn State, University of Maryland and Stevenson University. I came home to tell my parents the great news.
But his parents had news for him as well. His mom broke down in tears.
She said in our native language of Tagalog, she said (speaks foreign language), which means, "My son, please forgive me." And I asked her, "Why are you asking for forgiveness? This is a happy moment." That's when she started to explain to me that we had overstayed our tourist visas.
In other words, he was undocumented. He still is.
I could be sent home any time.
Young, ambitious, and educated people like Raymond Jose have become de-facto spokespeople for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
We are American in our hearts, but on paper, it doesn't say so.
For years, they've been pushing Congress to pass the DREAM Act. It would allow young people like Jose to become citizens. But now, these so-called DREAMers have expanded their activism. They're central players in the push for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill. That's where I met Jose recently. He was on a break during a busy day of meetings.
Today, I'm going on legislative visits, trying to gauge whether we can get swing votes.
The DREAM Act has failed in Congress again and again, but the DREAMers have managed to reframe the debate, according to Elizabeth Keyes, who directs the immigrant rights law clinic at the University of Baltimore.
MS. ELIZABETH KEYES
They really opened and shifted the conversation out of that stalemate that we were in for years, since 2007.
She says DREAMers moved the debate from being strictly about legality to being more about American identity.
The DREAMers just interrupted, and said, "We're not in that conversation. We're in a different conversation."
Many local DREAMers cut their activist teeth fighting for the Maryland DREAM Act, which voters approved last year. It gives undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.
MS. CLAUDIA QUINONEZ
We went out to the streets, we marched, we rallied.
I caught up with Claudia Quinonez on her high school graduation day, still dressed up with her graduation cap. Quinonez came here from Bolivia with her mother when she was 11. This past summer she got interested in politics when she started looking at colleges, and realized her immigration status was going to get in the way. At rallies last year, she spoke publicly about being undocumented, for the first time.
I felt as if a weight was being lifted from my shoulders.
It was a relief to speak openly, and to meet other kids who were in the same boat.
I never thought that there were many other children like me suffering in the shadows.
MS. GIANCARLA ROJAS
My name is Giancarla Rojas. I'm 19 years old. I've been in this country for six years.
Giancarla Rojas first spoke out about her immigration status just a week ago. It's a big change from five years ago, the last time Congress seriously tackled immigration reform. Back then, Rojas says immigration officials were trying to deport her and her younger sister. Their parents sent the kids into hiding with an aunt in Maryland.
For three months, we couldn't go out at all. And then after that was just really traumatizing. I didn't want to speak, because they said, "Don't say anything, just don't talk. Just go to school and come back to home."
Now, even as these young people go public, many in the older generations are still reluctant. Raymond Jose got in trouble with his parents when he was featured in a local Asian newspaper.
My family was on the front page of it, the picture of my family. And I didn't tell my parents about it. They just asked for a family picture.
His parents picked up a copy of the paper at a Chinese restaurant.
They were like, "What are you doing? This is a picture of us, and it, like, you know, clearly states that we are undocumented on a piece of paper." And they tried to tell me to stop doing it.
These days, he says, his parents are uneasily okay with his activism. But the DREAMers have been so successful, it's led to a sort of strange situation. The immigration reform bill senators are considering includes a fast track for DREAMers like Jose to get citizenship in as little as five years. For other immigrants, like their parents, it would take more than ten years.
They say that we came to the country not on our own fault, that we were brought here at a young age by our parents. But what they don't see is that our parents were trying to better our futures, trying to give us an opportunity that they didn't have. And they did it through the means that they had.
Jose says he's confident Congress will pass immigration reform this time around. But whatever happens, he says he's found a new calling in political activism. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Time for a break now, but when we get back, a first taste of adulthood, as we splash around the chaos of Beach Week.
MR. MIKE LEVY
When they arrive in Ocean City, they're still kids in a lot of ways, which is why they make so many terrible decisions.
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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