Melissa Garcia Velez addressing the crowd in Union Square, New York City, on March 18.
Dispatches, United States

Undocumented Immigrant Youth Support DREAM Act By Coming Out Of The Shadows

May 5, 2011 By Eline Gordts

NEW YORK — Melissa Garcia Velez didn’t look nervous when she took up the microphone in the center of New York’s Union Square, although what she was about to say could get her arrested, send her to prison, even get her deported. The 18-year-old smiled at the other protesters who had gathered around her with colorful self-made signs. She looked at the crowd and at the journalists right in front of her, and then spoke directly into the cameras: “I am undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.”

It was March 18, the end of an annual “coming out of the shadows week,” and Garcia was one of several students who defied threats of arrest and deportation to “come out” as undocumented that day. “I want to tell all my fellow Dreamers not to be afraid,” she said. “Because we are standing up for something. We are here and we don’t let fear take hold of us.”

The rally in Union Square was only one of many events organized by a growing national movement of undocumented students, who are no longer willing to live in the margins of American society. The movement demands the reintroduction of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (D.R.E.A.M Act), a piece of legislation that would offer undocumented students a ten-year path to citizenship, had it not failed to pass the Senate in December.

Notwithstanding the 2010 defeat, the “Dreamers” movement has continued to grow, its advocates consistently insisting on both immigrant youth’s right to education and a moratorium on deportations. “Obama, escucha, seguimos en la lucha,”  they chanted in Spanish at Union Square. “Listen, Obama, we’re in the struggle.”

“I am more than just nine numbers”

Melissa Garcia Velez, who followed her mother from Colombia to the United States at the age of eight, joined the Dreamers movement in her senior year of high school, now almost a year ago. Not allowed to work, ineligible for financial aid and unable to take out loans, the straight-A student was told by education counselors that going to college would simply be impossible. Until then, Garcia’s immigration status had never really been an issue — she and her mother even rarely talked about it. “There were no limitations, no stops, no “no, no you can’t”, there was nothing prohibiting me from living my life and from dreaming far beyond reality,” Garcia wrote in a blog post. “Yet to realize that I was undocumented agonized me and filled me with uncertainty, an uncertainty I had never felt before.” Garcia considered returning to Colombia, but in the end chose to demonstrate that she “was more than just papers, more than just nine numbers.” She was eventually accepted into Lehman College, and was able to make ends meet with a scholarship in the honors program and four additional awards.