The normal difficulties involved in growing up seem to double for young people living in America under the status of undocumented immigrants. But one group of politically minded youth called Dream Activists have challenged their shadowy status by coming forward with the proud declaration of, “Undocumented, unafraid.”
Sheila Quintana, 19 and a DA member, said, “When I grew up I always knew I was undocumented and had to convince myself that being undocumented didn’t define me.”
Edith Ramirez, 18 and also a DA member, had a similar experience. “When I came out of the shadows I started to appreciate myself and not reject myself for being undocumented.”
DA is a national movement with one branch taking up residence in a North Philadelphia church. Members meet there about once a week to plan upcoming rallies, discuss issues facing their community and draw support from each other.
DA originally began campaigning to support the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a proposed federal law. The DREAM Act would create a path to legal citizenship for young people who meet several requirements including receiving a high school degree or equivalent and serve in the military.
The mission for DA has expanded over time. Ramirez explained, “Basically, Dream Activists focus on getting communities involved to fight for rights not only for students but also for parents.”
“We tend to think we have no rights and I think the movement has really shown that we have the power to do something for ourselves,” Quintana said.
Quintana sees wording as part of the issue. “Undocumented is a status and ‘illegal’ places a stigma on the community”
Ramirez said DA members do not use the word illegal because they consider it a type of discrimination “because no human being is illegal.”
Quintana’s parents brought across the U.S. border at the age of 10. She has no recollection of the exact events because she was put to sleep for the duration.
Ramirez was 13 when she was told about coming to America a week before the planned crossing. Her father was already living in the United States. She and her mother were going to meet him and reunite the family.
“I wasn’t ready,” Ramirez said. “I was really afraid and I was really disappointed because I didn’t know what to expect here and I was also used to another life back there.”
Ramirez spent more than a week traveling up and down the border, looking for an opportunity to cross on foot.
“I was a little girl back then and I didn’t know what was going on really.” Ramirez explained. “I just knew that if I didn’t do what I was supposed to I could have died, right there.”
After crossing the border, Ramirez was faced with a new challenge. “When I got here I felt rejected by society. I did not know the language and the culture was totally different from what I knew.”
“When I went into school people were not talking to me. They looked at me like I was an alien or something,” Ramirez said.
Quintana’s parents were able to find an employer who is aware of their status.
“I know people who are not that fortunate,” Quintana said. “They deal with losing and finding jobs many times a year because they have to use fake papers.”
Another problem for those of undocumented status is not having a driver’s licenses. While a person without a driver’s license in Pennsylvania is given a fine, Quintana said in other states driving without a legitimate license is a misdemeanor crime. “I can see how it becomes a real obstacle for people.”
Both Quintana and Ramirez are looking at attending college.
“You basically have two options,” Ramirez said. “Get into a private college and try to get in with a scholarship or go to community college and try to do two years there and transfer to another school.”
Because she has no Social Security number she can’t apply for any financial aid.
On June 15, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a plan to defer deportation for certain eligible youth. Under this new policy qualified applicants would apply for deferment every two years.
Quintana said, “My main problem with it is it leaves out a lot of people and it’s not permanent.” She estimate it would only help about 5 percent of the immigrant population.
The DA activists were in Norristown last month protesting a new agreement between the Montgomery County Correctional Facility and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The agreement sets aside 60 beds each day to detain illegal immigrants. Quintana along with two other members were arrested and spent almost three days in jail before being released on bail funds donated by the community.
Quintana’s undocumented aunt has a son born in the United States. A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature requires parents of a citizen child to have a Social Security number to get benefits.
“And the first thing I thought of was the fact that within three months approximately she might not be able to do that,” Quintana said.
Ramirez recently graduated from Kensington International Business High School and is now working to raise funds for college.
Quintana is preparing to start her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania where she originally planned on majoring in neuroscience but has developed a love of advocacy through DA. Public health is now the career she is considering for her university studies.