With the House passing the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act last Wednesday and the Senate set to vote on it as soon as this Friday, now is a good time for a personal account of what’s at stake with DREAM.
Gaby Pacheco, a 25 year-old undocumented immigrant whose parents brought her from Ecuador to the United States at age 7, has been an outspoken advocate for DREAM since 2004. In addition to her work with Students Working for Equal Rights and the Florida Immigrant Coalition, she joined three other undocumented students on the Trail of Dreams earlier this year—a four-month walk from Miami to the nation’s capital—to call attention to the plight of the roughly 2 million undocumented people brought to this country as minors. We spoke about her experience as an undocumented child, her involvement in DREAM advocacy and some of the difficult compromises involved in getting the DREAM Act through the Congress.
Altschuler: I was hoping you could start out by telling me a bit about your personal story and how you became aware of the immigration issue.
Pacheco: I’ve been in the United States for 18 years. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, but I was raised in Miami, Florida. I started in the 3rd grade, and I scored really high in math and science, so I was put in a gifted program. That gave me confidence to believe in myself, and my teachers instilled in me a great desire to achieve and persevere, with the idea of achieving the American dream—that if we work really hard, we can achieve anything that we set our minds to.
At elementary school, I was in the choir, and I would stay after-school helping the teachers grade papers. I guess you could call me a teacher’s pet, but I just really loved school.
In middle school, I started getting into honors classes. In high school, I took AP classes, and I was part of the cross-country, basketball and the track-and-field teams. I was part of the ROTC program with the Army and the Navy and was one of the top students in the school.
The first time I started finding out that there was something wrong was in the 8th grade. One of my two sisters had finished high school, but she wasn’t able to go to school and continue her path—she wanted to be a nurse. It shocked me, so I started working even harder. And then in 10th grade, I took Drivers Ed, and I took all the paperwork that they’d given us. They told me, “All you need to do is fill out these papers and they’ll give you your learner’s permit.” So I did do that, and I was really happy, but then I got turned down. And then my dad said, “That’s OK, we’ll just go to another office.” But then I kept getting turned down. I was missing a paper that was going to stop me—not only from driving, but also potentially from going to college.
In 12th grade, when I graduated from high school, I confronted that issue. But, thankfully, Miami-Dade College opened the doors to me and other students. I was able to excel. I was student government president—not just of my college, but of the 28 colleges in the whole college system in the state of Florida. In 2006, I was representing 1.1 million students and had the opportunity to meet with the governor and senators and promote legislation that actually became law. I was really proud of myself. When I graduated from college, I thought I had proven everybody wrong, and maybe there was some way that I was going to be able to somehow find a reprieve. But I went to lawyers, and they told me that wasn’t going to happen.
Altschuler: How did you get involved in advocating for the DREAM Act?
Pacheco: I became an advocate for the DREAM Act in 2004. And now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we get the DREAM Act passed.
I’m formally connected to Presente.org, which does online organizing. And I came from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and I was one of the founders of Students Working for Equal Rights in the state of Florida. From four of us that used to meet to try to pass the DREAM Act, we now have 16 chapters throughout Florida. Students Working for Equal Rights is part of the United We Dream network, which is led by students and represents 26 states.
This year, along with Felipe, Carlos and Juan—we walked from Miami to DC. And last week, I was able to witness passage of the DREAM Act from the House gallery. This week, we’re looking forward to talking to our senators to try to get a favorable vote either this week or next week for the DREAM Act.
Altschuler: Could you share with me your position on the DREAM legislation in its current form, after negotiators opted to reduce the age limit (from 34 to 29 years old) and the extension of the waiting period for citizenship (10 years before one can apply for citizenship) to get the bill through the House?
Pacheco: For me, it was really tough to see the DREAM Act change, and change in such a dramatic way. Now it will leave out my sister, for instance. The reason I’ve been fighting so hard has been for her. Actually, December 14, is her birthday—she turned 31. And so I thought that the legislation would have passed by now, and I thought that if the legislation changed, it would be for 30 or under. She was fighting so hard, is so bright—she wants to be in the Air Force—and now will be left out, unable to do anything.
But at the same time, it’s still good legislation, and it would still allow potentially 1 million students to fulfill their dreams.
Altschuler: Can you tell me about the discussions between the pro-DREAM groups about the compromises that were on the table?
Pacheco: For us, the compromises and the changes came at a high cost. But, at the same time, we understood that they were needed to push forward and have the bill where it is today. For us, that was the bottom line. We don’t want the legislation to change anymore, because we don’t want to lose any more students.
So, as a collective, at all the different stages, we did have a call where we discussed it, and everybody took a vote. The majority—and it was almost unanimous—felt that this was what we needed to do, and that we needed to move forward. But making sure that we are keeping our leaders responsible—making sure that these changes would allow more senators to vote for it.
Altschuler: How concerned are you about the possibility of there being further concessions to DREAM—for instance, on enforcement provisions—to get it passed in the Senate? Would you and other pro-DREAM groups stay on board?
Pacheco: There are definitely concerns about what might get attached to it. And I think a lot of people are aware of where the limits are going to be. But, because we haven’t seen the language yet, we’re just worrying about pushing it forward. At the same time, we respect the decisions that the organizations from border states make. They’re the ones that will be most affected, and their voices will be crucial in how we want to move the legislation forward. Because we do not want to hurt people in the process of helping others. And that’s one of the beautiful things about being united—that we can have these conversations and say, “Arizona, how do you feel about this? Texas, how do you feel about this? California, how do you feel about this?” Because we’re a family, we’re a community, and we need to make sure that everyone’s going to be OK. So there will probably be a time when we have to talk if the legislation comes with extreme things that we cannot allow. And I think we’ll stand together if it does have things that are unacceptable to our community.
Altschuler: Can you tell me about the recent activities in which you’ve been involved to promote DREAM?
Pacheco: Tuesday was an incredible day. We had faith leaders from all different religious backgrounds and states come to DC. In the morning, we had a press conference, and the different religious leaders had the opportunity to speak to say why it’s important for DREAM to pass. We had organizations that represent millions of people saying that this is something they want. Also, the faith leader who was leading the press conference said, “If the senators don’t pass this, they’re going to have to deal with us, and all the Christians, Muslims, and Jews that are represented here. We’re going to open our universities and colleges, and we’re going to go against the laws, because they’re going against the will of God.” And it was really amazing to see older preachers saying, “We’re going to do civil disobedience and they’re going to have to go through us to get to these students.” It fills our souls and our hearts. Having people from the faith backgrounds supporting us is really key.
There is also the Jericho Walk around the Senate by the students. And the faith leaders joined, and they went to every single one of the buildings and the Capitol, where they had the students in the middle and the religious leaders praying around them. And, before that, all the students got together and sang the national anthem. And after that, we walked into the Senate Hart building, where there were prayers, and then the religious leaders did pray-ins in Senate offices with the students. We went to the offices of Senators Sessions, Lemieux, Hutchinson, Landrieu, McCaskill, Brownback, and many others.
Altschuler: One final thing—assuming the DREAM Act passes, what would becoming a citizen mean to you?
Pacheco: It would be a golden key for success. It would be the ability to use the talents and gifts that I have to give back to this country. The DREAM Act would mean the realization of the dreams that I have, and unleashing the potential of hundreds of thousands of students throughout the United States.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.