Sunday, September 14, 2014

Texas Dreamers embrace politics even as they face an uncertain future

I am so proud of our DREAM Act students here in Texas.  They have been leaders of a movement nationwide. Here's a story on them in this morning's Austin American-Statesman.


Texas Dreamers embrace politics even as they face an uncertain future

By Jonathan Tilove - American-Statesman Staff

Andrea Gonzalez Garnier, who graduated last spring with a government degree from the University of Texas, and Pedro Villalobos, now in his second year at UT Law School, are Dreamers. They are called that because they are among the nearly 50,000 students to take advantage of the Texas Dream Act since Texas 13 years ago became the first state to offer unauthorized immigrants in-state tuition at colleges and universities.Calling it the Dream Act, calling them Dreamers, was intended to present them in the most uplifting, aspirational terms, offering an image of young people who have been inculcated in the American dream in the only home many of them have ever really known, striving to share in its promise.
But it is even more apt than that, because Dreamers like Gonzalez Garnier and Villalobos live lives of surreal extremes, of sublime “I must be dreaming moments” amid a restless undercurrent of cold-sweat anxiety that one day they might learn that it really was all a dream, that they are being sent back to a place they barely know.
Despite their uncertain futures in this country, Gonzalez Garnier and Villalobos have become deeply involved in politics, volunteering for campaigns and meeting statewide candidates and presidents. Their activism is a hallmark of a new generation of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America who not only are embracing the American dream but trying to shape it.
Of the pinch-me moments, there was state Sen. Wendy Davis, seated between Villalobos and Gonzalez Garnier at the Democratic State Convention in Dallas in June, just before Davis ascended the stage to accept her party’s nomination for governor.
At the convention, Villalobos was assigned by Democratic State Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa to help draft the party’s platform on immigration, working the computer’s “Command F” to find and remove any use of the word “illegal.”
The week before the convention, the pair met Hillary Clinton at BookPeople in Austin. Gonzalez Garnier, 21, plans to defer law school until she can help try to elect Clinton president.
Last year, Villalobos introduced Vice President Joe Biden at a West Lake Hills fundraiser — identifying himself as undocumented, he hailed Biden as “someone who will always have our back.” At 23, Villalobos has met five American presidents, more than most heads of state can claim.
And yet, in the 13 years since the Texas Dream Act was enacted, the attitude of many Texans toward Dreamers has curdled. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found in June that about half of Texas voters want to see them not just stripped of their in-state tuition but deported along with every other undocumented immigrant in the state.
‘The future of activism’
Now comes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, casting the November election nationally as a referendum on President Barack Obama’s apparent plans to expand the very policy — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — that protects Villalobos and Gonzalez Garnier from being deported. To Cruz, it’s a lawless amnesty that precipitated this summer’s crisis on the border, with a flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America, at great peril to themselves, trekking across Mexico to Texas.
“I don’t like to think about it, but they are playing with my life,” Gonzalez Garnier said of the efforts to end DACA. “My life hangs in their hands, and I do think it’s a kind of political football.”
If it is, University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto, who has studied the “politics of in-between,” said it is well to remember that it was activism among those residing in the country without authorization, which first became apparent during the immigration protests of 2006, that proved decisive in persuading Obama to embrace DACA in 2012.
“At first I didn’t understand how to be politically involved and not be able to vote,” Gonzalez Garnier said.
But she has come to see political involvement as a way to compensate for not having the vote by encouraging others to exercise the franchise she cannot.
In the eyes of Latino voters, said Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm, Latino Decisions, DACA was the most popular thing Obama has done and the single biggest reason he rolled up the huge margins with Latino voters that were crucial to his re-election.
“These kids are the future of activism in this country, and it’s beautiful. They’re smart, and they’re committed, and they’re focused,” said Ana Yañez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
If Republicans repeal the Texas Dream Act and end DACA, she said, it will be to their ultimate regret: “I think it will be the downfall of the Republican Party.”
‘Coming out as undocumented’
The Texas Dream Act offered in-state tuition to any public college or university in the state to unauthorized immigrant students who have gained admission. They must have graduated from a high school or received a GED diploma in Texas, have lived in the state for at least three years and have signed an affidavit affirming they are seeking legal residency.
According to the most recent numbers available from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, between 2002 and 2012, 45,803 students have taken advantage of in-state tuition under the act.
But “Dreamer” has also come to refer more broadly to those who would have benefited from a federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act — which has never passed Congress, but which would have permitted similar students a pathway to temporary, then permanent legal status and ultimately U.S. citizenship — and to those who are now covered by DACA, which Obama initiated in June 2012 as a stopgap measure in the absence of a national DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform.
According to the Immigration Policy Center, there are 1.8 million immigrants in the United States who either are eligible or might become eligible for “deferred action,” a two-year, renewable reprieve from deportation to those who meet certain requirements: they are under age 31; they entered the United States before turning 16; they have lived here continuously for at least five years; they have stayed out of serious legal trouble, and they are either in school, graduated from high school, earned a GED certificate or served in the military.
There are an estimated 300,000 beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries in Texas, more than any other state but California.
For the last two years, DACA has enabled Gonzalez Garnier and Villalobos, both of whom were born in Mexico but grew up in Houston — Gonzalez Garnier arrived when she was 8 and Villalobos when he was 3 — to rest easy, and both have applied for a two-year extension.
“For me, the thing that always comes to my head was being able to have a driver’s license,” said Villalobos. “With DACA you get more freedom, you feel like you have more room to breathe.”
“I can work now,” he said. “This is some sort of small validation that this is my home country, that America is my home country.
“Honestly, I cried when I first held my Social Security card.”
As his mother admonished him when he started to talk openly about his status, “If there is anything we’ve taught you from a young age, you don’t tell people, this is something you don’t do.”
Villalobos has come to view his public affirmation of his status as an obligation.
“I think when people think of an undocumented immigrant, they think of someone not like me, someone not like Andrea,” Villalobos said. “I’m in law school. I just graduated from I think the best college in the state. I think that’s what gets lost in the debate, that we are contributing members of society, we pay taxes, we’re not criminals. By me coming out as undocumented, I’m putting a face to it, I’m injecting my story into the discussion.”
‘We don’t have Perry anymore’
According to the National Immigration Law Center, at least 17 states provide in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrant students.
The Texas Dream Act passed the Legislature in 2001 with only four dissenting votes and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.
A decade later, Perry would pay a steep political price. When he ran for president, he came under fire from other Republican candidates for supporting the in-state tuition. At a debate in September 2011, he defended himself: “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”
The moment he uttered those words, Perry’s candidacy was doomed, said Texas Christian University political scientist Adam Schiffer, who closely tracked the polling and social media over the course of the GOP nominating process. Perry’s “oops” moment at a debate two months later was, Schiffer said, merely the coup de grace.
As he contemplates another run for president, Perry is cutting a very different figure on immigration, sending National Guard troops to help secure a border that he depicts, thanks to federal neglect, as a sieve for criminal aliens, even terrorists.
GOP primary politics notwithstanding, the DREAM Act remains popular with the general electorate, said Barreto, the University of Washington political scientist.
“About the only segment of America that is opposed to the DREAM Act is tea party sympathizers. Even among mainstream Republicans there is broad support for the DREAM Act,” he said.
But in Texas, where the tea party holds sway in the Republican Party, attitudes on immigration have been hardening.
The difference between Texas Republicans and Democrats on immigration could not be starker.
The 2014 Texas Republican Party platform called for “ending in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.”
The Democratic State Convention adopted a platform that called for expanding DACA until comprehensive immigration reform is enacted and that opposed any effort to repeal in-state tuition.
“Every session this law has been under attack, and every session it’s been saved because of Perry,” said Yañez-Correa, of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
But, come the next legislative session, Yañez-Correa said, “We don’t have Perry anymore.”
“I’m concerned that the Legislature will deliver a bill to the governor’s desk in the next legislative session to repeal the Dream Act given the current makeup of the House and the Senate. As governor, I will veto a bill that comes to my desk that attempts to do that,” Wendy Davis told the American-Statesman in a recent interview.
If Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is elected governor, a veto is far less likely.
“Greg Abbott believes that the objective of the program is noble. But he believes the law as structured is flawed and it must be reformed,” Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said when the issue arose last year.
‘They are Texans’
A national Latino Decisions poll in June found that 62 percent of registered Hispanic voters “personally knew an undocumented immigrant, including 30 percent of Latino voters who said they have a family member who is undocumented, and an additional 32 percent saying it was a friend. A third of Latino voters said they knew an individual or family facing detention or deportation.”
But amid Democratic fears that any announcement from the Obama administration of executive actions on immigration before the November election might swing crucial Senate races in states like Louisiana and Arkansas — and Senate control — to the Republicans, the president announced last weekend that he was postponing any action until after the election.
Barreto believes that, on balance, that was a mistake for Democrats, particularly in a place like Texas.
“Our polling indicates very clearly that had Obama moved forward with his executive action on immigration, Latino voters would have been much more enthusiastic about voting, and for voting Democrat,” Barreto said.
Cruz seized on Obama’s retreat as a sign of weakness.
“The decision to delay amnesty until after the election is an attempt to avoid accountability,” said Cruz, whose father, Rafael, came to the United States from Cuba on a student visa, and then, when that ran out, applied for and received political asylum.
DACA is amnesty, Cruz said, and, “Amnesty ensures that tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of little boys and little girls will continue to be victimized, to be physically abused, to be sexually abused. Amnesty is not compassionate, it is not humane. It is exacerbating a crisis at the border. It is lawless and it is wrong.”
Legislatively, Cruz can’t win on the issue anytime soon. The Democratic-controlled Senate won’t approve the legislation ending DACA that was passed, with Cruz’s active encouragement, in the House. Obama would veto it if they did. Also, Cruz’s legislation is written such that, theoretically, it wouldn’t strip those already covered by DACA of its protections.
But Cruz and his fellow Republicans in Congress and the Texas Legislature aren’t Gonzalez Garnier’s and Villalobos’ only concern.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision held that immigrant children who turned 21, as they both have, while waiting to be issued a family-based visa, have to get in the back of the line and start the process all over again.
Villalobos had been in line for permanent resident status with his parents since 1996. His parents are still waiting and then, only once they get approved can they petition on his behalf, starting the clock for him on another potentially decades-long wait.
Gonzalez Garnier’s mother and brother are now permanent residents, her father’s application is still going through, but, having turned 21, she’s back at square one.
Also, under new rules, when her number is called, she would have to return to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, where she is from in Mexico, while federal officials process her application, which could take weeks, months, years. “It depends,” she said. “They never tell you anything.”
In the meantime, she tries to stay focused on her very American dreaming.
She owes her interest in politics to the TV show “The West Wing,” and her becoming a Russian studies minor to a curiosity piqued by the Disney movie “Anastasia.”
She came to UT hoping to major in international relations — she dreamed about a career with the CIA — until she realized it required her to study abroad and that she can’t do that with any expectation that she’d be able to return.
Gonzalez Garnier and Villalobos got to know each other through the University Democrats at UT, and they both worked on Celia Israel’s campaign for state representative.
“We were building a campaign, and we just wanted them to be on the team,” said Israel, whose district includes parts of North and Northeast Austin and Pflugerville. “We didn’t particularly care that they’re here with or without papers. They were here with their heart and their soul, and that was what was important to me.”
Israel said she also admires their willingness to “come out.”
“It hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but I’ll make a correlation to myself as a gay woman, a lesbian,” Israel said. “If you keep it inside and don’t tell anybody about it, what good is it? Come out of the closet. Be who you are, be honest about who you are and let the chips fall where they may. And I’ve learned to do that with my sexuality and, it may be dangerous to make that connection, but I see these kids having that freedom of simply saying, `I am who I am. Take me for who I am,’ and I was happy to take them for who they are because they care deeply about their state, they’re not going back to their country of birth. They are Texans.”

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