Although Felipe Matos lacks the legal documentation that renders him an American, he still works to protect the rights of others who face the risk of arrest or deportation.
Matos, a student at Miami Dade Community College, met with USF students Thursday in the Marshall Student Center alongside Miami activists Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Roa to encourage support for the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act during the lame-duck session of Congress that started Nov. 15.
The act was proposed to provide a pathway to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, allowing them a greater opportunity to access education and employment.
According to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, states are prohibited from allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition unless any U.S. citizens can pay that to attend.
The three, along with Gaby Pacheco, who was not present, became known as the Dream Walkers after their 1,500-mile trek from Miami to Washington, D.C., in January. They’re walk had more than 4,000 participants when it ended.
“Every type of benefit and privilege is because of others’ struggles and sacrifices,” Matos said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure those rights are parts of our society.”
Braulio Colon, interim director for Enlace Florida, a USF-based network that conducts research for undocumented imm grants, said he believes the DREAM Act is a victim of partisan politics.
“The biggest obstacle (to getting the DREAM Act passed) is the political climate,” he said. “It’s been polarized. The political discussion in our country has been polarized to the point where moderates have no place and the extremes have overtaken the discourse on both sides. If it’s going to take place, it’s got to take place during this lame-duck session.”
The DREAM Act was proposed to the Senate by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) and to the House of Representatives by California and Florida Reps. Howard Berman (D) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) on March 26, 2009.
The bill stipulates that individuals must have migrated to the U.S. before the age of 16, must have lived in the country at least five years before the bill is enacted, received a high school or equivalent diploma in the United States or be registered with a university or college, have not been in trouble with the law and range between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application.
“It’s un-American to penalize our highest achieving students because their parents made a bad decision or one that wasn’t in line with state laws,” Colon said. “Parents should have to pay the penalty for making that decision because no one is above the law, but the child, in most cases, had no say in it.”
Mauricio Caro, a senior majoring in art and a member of Lambda Upsilon Lambda, said he organized the event and inducted the walkers as members of his fraternity.
“I want people to realize that the Dream Walkers are also students. If they can do it, why can’t we?” he said. “If we sit back, nothing is going to happen. We need to call senators and politicians who can make a difference. We need support from youth and everyone. They need to see the DREAM Act is safe and it works. We can make a change in our society.”
Roa said his family has tried to achieve residency since arriving in the country in 1989. His grandfather, who became a naturalized citizen in 1958, sponsored them to live in the country and passed away in the ‘90s.
They still haven’t received residency because of financial instability stemming from when his father lost his job and his mother had cancer.
“Our voices are not being heard,” Roa said. “We feel as though we are being imprisoned by our own oppression.”
Jeevan Rampersad, a senior majoring in criminology, said he spent his first eight years in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant in Miami coming from Trinidad and Tobago.
“So many individuals are promised the American Dream, but a lot of people never have anyone reach out to them,” he said. “This helplessness leads to stigma. Your life is worth less than a cockroach on the floor.”
Colon said many of these rights have been stripped from people due to the negative connotations attached to the terminology often used to describe such individuals.
“The stigma comes from the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ It sounds like the student did something wrong,” he said. “(His/her) mother or father decided to come into this country, and (the child) had to come with them. The child should not be included in the ‘illegal’ part of the equation, and unfortunately they are.”