WASHINGTON – Launching a new website that features the stories of immigrant students who once felt the need to “live in the shadows,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said Tuesday that the DREAM Act will become law if advocates follow the example set by the Civil Rights Movement.
“During the Civil Rights Movement, hearts and minds weren’t changed by debates about abstract principles like equal protection,” Durbin said at the Center for American Progress during a talk about the future of the DREAM Act, which he authored over a decade ago to grant relief from deportation to certain young people brought to the United States as children.
Rather, he said, the Civil Rights Movement achieved its objectives after individuals such as then-activist John Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and other voting-rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. State troopers and local law enforcement officers attacked the marchers in an incident known as Bloody Sunday.
Lewis “became the face of the Civil Rights Movement for so many people in the same way Dreamers have come out knowing they face deportation,” Durbin said. “They’re prepared to step up.”
Durbin’s talk Tuesday comes a little more than a month after the Obama administration announced its Deferred Action Process for a select group of young people brought to the United States as young children.
Durbin commended President Obama for taking the action, which tentatively and administratively accomplishes some of what the DREAM Act would accomplish legislatively.
“This decision will give these young people and many others like them [an opportunity] to come out of the shadows,” Durbin said.
But Durbin noted how “a future president could change this policy.”
“Ultimately the responsibility lies with Congress,” Durbin said of passing the DREAM Act, which he said would give people “freedom from fear of deportation and a clear path to citizenship in America.”
“The DREAM Act would give Dreamers the opportunity to become future leaders of America,” Durbin said, using the name that has been bestowed upon students who stand to benefit from the DREAM Act.
Many of the Dreamers whose stories Durbin has told on the Senate floor were on hand at Tuesday’s event.
All of them had either obtained college degrees or were majoring in subjects that ranged from architecture and engineering to nursing and education.
Diverse asked the Dreamers if they had considered tying their higher education accomplishments and DREAM Act advocacy to the Obama administration’s goal to get the United States to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
“We’ve actually done that,” said Tolu Olubunmi, a Dreamer who was brought to the U.S. as a child from Nigeria and who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington and Lee University in 2002, but who has not been able to work as a chemical engineer in the United States because she is “undocumented.”
“We’ve shown the numbers,” Olubunmi said. Estimates put the potential number of Dreamers as high as 1.4 million.
Olubunmi said the message that she and other Dreamers have sent to the Obama administration is: “You can get to your goal a little easier if you get all of these amazing, talented immigrants to help you out with that.”
“It’s the truth,” Olubunmi said. “We’re going to go to college anyway. Why not take advantage of that? Why not use that to make [the U.S.] the amazing place that it is? It could be even better if we could accept that we’re in each other’s lives forever.”
Durbin — who recounted his own personal history as the descendant of immigrants from Lithuania — said the DREAM Act has strong bipartisan support, although not enough — at least not as of yet — to bypass Republican filibusters and make the DREAM Act law.
“The American people understand it makes no sense to send these talented people and many others like them away,” Durbin said. “We’ve invested in these young people. Now let’s get some return on our investment to make America an even stronger nation.”
Cesar Vargas, a Dreamer who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by his parents when he was 5, expressed similar thoughts.
“We want an opportunity to earn our citizenship, our place in this country,” said Vargas, who recently graduated from the City University of New York School of Law.
Vargas spoke of plans to become a military lawyer, work on behalf of disabled veterans and espouse a philosophy wherein the military’s primary aim is peace, not war. He also plans to become a prosecutor.
“We want an opportunity to really become a part of our community,” Vargas said.