Raymond Jose, outside the Hart Senate Office Building, between legislative visits urging senators to support comprehensive immigration reform. He is working with the Maryland DREAM Youth Committee.
Next week, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to turn its attention to a major effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system. Some of the people helping shape this year's debate would barely be old enough to vote — if they were citizens.
Raymond Jose came to Maryland from the Philippines 13 years ago, when he was just 9 years old.
"I found out about my immigration status my senior year of high school," says Jose.
His hard work at school was paying off — he'd gotten into college and was offered three scholarships. But when he went home to tell his parents the good news, they had news for him as well. His mom broke down in tears.
"She said in our native language of Tagalog, 'My son, please forgive me.' And I asked her, 'Why are you asking for forgiveness? This is a happy moment.' And 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, though he has applied for legal status through President Obama's deferred action program.
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," he says. "We want to be contributing members of society, but unfortunately, because of a piece of paper, we're not allowed to."
Turning DREAM into a reality
For years, they've been pushing Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow young people like Jose to become citizens. But now, these DREAMers have expanded their activism, and they're central players in the push for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill.
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.
"They really opened and shifted the conversation out of that stalemate 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, giving undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.
"We went out to the streets, we marched, we rallied," says Claudia Quiñonez, who just graduated from high school in Montgomery County. Quiñonez 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," she says.
It was a relief to speak openly, and to meet other kids who were in the same boat.
"I thought I was the only person who was encountering that situation. I never thought that there were many other children like me suffering in the shadows. If people would ask me if I was a citizen I would reply, 'Yes, I am a citizen, I was born here, what are you talking about?'"
Activist DREAMers aim for better opportunities
In Virginia, Giancarla Rojas first spoke publicly 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," she says. "And then after that was really traumatizing. I didn't want to speak, because they said, 'Don't talk, just don't say anything. Just go straight to school and come back 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. 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 clearly states that we are undocumented on a piece of paper.' And they tried to tell me to stop doing it."
Now, he says, his parents are uneasily okay with his activism. But the DREAMers have been so successful, it's led to a strange situation. The immigration reform legislation 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.
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