Sunday, December 05, 2010

San Antonio activists draw national attention

By Melissa Ludwig
Friday, December 3, 2010

Hunger strikes and civil disobedience by San Antonio activists has become the talk of the nation among supporters of the DREAM Act, according to the League of United Latin American Citizens.

As of Friday, a Methodist minister was still in the Bexar County Jail and a group of activists was on the 24th day of a hunger strike, actions intended to pressure Congress into voting on the measure during the lame-duck session.

The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, 41, was one of 16 activists arrested Monday night after refusing to leave the local office of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Smith chose not to post bond and to stay in custody until Congress brings the DREAM Act to a vote.

Brent Wilkes, national executive director for LULAC, said news of the actions has made national waves, inspiring hundreds — including himself — to join the hunger strike.

“In Washington, D.C., everyone is talking about what the San Antonio students are doing,” Wilkes said. “I think it's incredible.”

The act would give immigrants brought to the country illegally as children a path to citizenship if they complete two years of college or military service and have “good moral character.”

The House is expected to vote on the act next week, but passage in the Senate is an uphill battle.

Some conservatives have called the act an unfair amnesty, and Republican senators have complained it is too broad.

To address Republicans' concerns, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a more restrictive version Tuesday that tightens the definition of “good moral character,” lowers the age cap for eligible applicants from 35 to 30 and forces illegal immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

It also extends the probationary period for obtaining permanent residency to 10 years and adds another three years before the immigrants can apply for citizenship.

Passage of the DREAM Act would result in a $1.4 billion reduction of the federal deficit from 2011-2020, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released Thursday, although organizations opposed to the bill dispute that figure.

Hutchison is among a few Republican senators considered a “swing vote” on the DREAM Act because she had supported it at one time. After the arrests in San Antonio, activists had sit-ins at Hutchison's offices in Houston, Austin and Harlingen, according to local strikers.

On Friday, she said she remains opposed to the bill. “The protesters' tactics are not persuasive, and the senator hopes that hunger strikes and demonstrations will not be used for legislation that must have a consensus that cannot be achieved in this manner,” according to a statement from her press secretary.

The core group of activists — most of them students at the University of Texas at San Antonio — led a community meeting Thursday night at the downtown campus to plan events for the weekend and Monday.

“You all are the future demographic of this state, and this is not a controversial issue for your generation,” said Walter Wilson, a UTSA political science professor.

Subsisting on juice and water, the strikers are nearing the point where the lack of food could take a serious toll on their bodies, said Joseph Huerta, a nutritional consultant caring for the strikers.

As of Friday, Smith was on the ninth day of a hunger strike and has attracted nightly vigils outside the jail since her arrest.

“She has never been to jail before, but she has always stood up for what she believes,” said her 17-year-old son, Derek Smith. “I am proud of her.”

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