Dreaming of DREAM in Silence: My journey reporting on the Undergraduate Underground Railroad

*names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of those represented.

All Aboard

“I’m #999-99-9999, and I’m here because I didn’t ask to come here when I was four,”

“…because my brother works at McDonald’s with a master’s in engineering,”

“…because I’m a super senior since I don’t know what’s going to happen once I graduate,”

“…because my parents don’t go to my sister’s PTA meetings for fear of being found out,”

40 almond shaped eyes question my presence, my trustworthiness, my citizenship. I look across the room to two friends I invited. They stare back at me as if to say “what did you get us into?” because it looks like some Latin King ish is about to go down. I answer “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to write a story!” via a series of Morris Code like eye twitches as the weight in the room gets heavier. 200 hundred fingers drum roll across laminated table tops and knees shake like Macarenas – juxtaposed sounds of insecurity and passion, and then click. The door closes.

Finally, a familiar voice.

“Maria Lopez”, my friend and leader of DREAM Action NIU, benevolently referred to as “The Dream Team” speaks up. She announces I’m there to write a story for the school paper. After “Maria instructs us to introduce ourselves, students begin naming themselves the way they appear on paper at Northern Illinois University: temporary social security numbers. Each number is followed by a testimony, and the irony in social security numbers providing no social security at all. When these students leave NIU, they will be thrust into the work world as undocumented citizens – another oxymoron – people that regardless of anonymity, lead in their communities, excel in academics, and even serve for the country. Not exactly the resume of a Latin King.

Let me back it up – not all students dreaming of DREAM are Latino.

The DREAM, or Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a piece of legislation that affects student immigrants that were brought to the US. This includes coming across the border by coyote, entering Florida from Haiti, Cuba or the Bahamas by boat, or staying for an extended vacation in Brooklyn or Chicago from Poland. Schools like NIU provide high school graduates that are undocumented with the right to earn state and privatized scholarships as well as earn a degree. But once they leave the nest, they face deportation or working under the table.

Underground Undergraduate Railroad

When it’s time for me to make my introduction, I say “I came here to write about your journeys”. FAIL. My friend “Alejandro” – the one that was asking me why I brought him to the death wish via eye chat – says, “I’m Spanish, like from Spain, and I sympathize with you but I can’t empathize with you. I’m here because I was invited.” Cricket…cricket.

Ian is my homie, but in a single moment, I understand the fight.

According to the National Immigration Law Center’s most recent update, the DREAM Act would provide temporal legal status and a path to citizenship, worker’s rights and scholarships at no penalty to the states that award them. The Act is geared towards, “students [that have] graduated from two-year… or certain vocational colleges, or studied for at least two years toward a [bachelor’s] or higher degree,” and people who have, “served in the US armed forces for at least two years,”.

But the underlying battle is getting people to understand, to care and to remember that this country’s history is straight up influenced by immigration.  According to the Chicago Encyclopedia’s website, “hundreds of thousands of people from Poland came to Chicago during World War II.” And when you think about it, all the Little Cubas, Haitis and pick-your-Asian towns weren’t put there and named by some Pilgrim, Jefferson or Washington in knickers who, by the way, were immigrants too.

Train of Thought

At home, I tell friends about the DREAM Act and what it means for the students and oh woe is them, and then I realize how utterly ignorant I’ve been. The DREAM Act affects me! My mother was born a Bahamian and went to college in Florida. She married my dad, a Floridian, so was able to stay in the US and duh, she gave birth to me here instead of in the Bahamas. Her mother, my Grammy, did the same for my aunt and uncle, and my great Grammy did the same for my Grammy. I have aunts and uncles and cousins who strategically give birth to their children in the US and go back to raise them in the Bahamas until it’s time for them to go to college. Many of them, however, fell through that strategic freak the system crack. My mom included. My grandmother was preparing to leave for the US when my mom and her twin busted the amniotic sac a little early.

“Aura” is my 26 year old Bahamian born 1st cousin that lives under the radar in West Palm Beach, Florida. She didn’t catch the US-born train. She and her five kids, four sisters and mom, live in a two-bedroom house in Florida. She’s graduated from dental school without a job or clear legal direction to go. Right now, her only hope is that some Floridian meets her at the altar. If not, she gets turned right around with foreign fruit at the dock. Am I a silent “DREAMer” for not saying this at the meeting?

The Last Stop

At the next meeting, I’m ready to get an interview. When it’s over, we spill out of the conference room into a common area like milk; me as the single piece of Coco Puff. I wade through and try to get more details on the lives and post-graduation plans of my fierce undocumented academic competition and financial aid line mates. Most decline. I do the dummy and try asking los preguntas en Espanol, because four years of Spanish should earn their trust right? Come se dice “NO” en ingles?

My report is falling apart. “Maria” says she can’t help me because most of the students here have been “outed” before, even denied access to class. I say, “that is news! They’re dreaming of DREAM in silence!” After a moment of silent disagreement, “Maria” begins to describe this girl she knows who came to the US when she was 15, graduated valedictorian from high school, was fortunate enough to win scholarships but not the golden nine digits. She explains that this girl is currently at NIU living on campus because she can’t commute. The girl doesn’t have a license because she doesn’t have a social security number. My mind wanders to all the times “Maria” and I caught the bus. At the time, I just didn’t have a license because I was too trifling to get it renewed. I never thought about why she didn’t have hers. Was she talking about herself? I know my friend. I know her almond eyes, and I think know the answer.

Visit http://www.niutoday.info/tag/illinois-dream-act/  to learn more about DREAM Action NIU’s efforts.

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One response to “Dreaming of DREAM in Silence: My journey reporting on the Undergraduate Underground Railroad

  1. The government is too caught up in whether someone is born in this land or not. Instead of worrying about who is native here and found their way here, we should be welcoming and helping everyone with open arms. What is that saying, “Land of the free and home of the brave”? Seems pretty hypocritical… If this is a free land, then why is it that people have to go through hell just to get across the border. I love that you have addressed this issue and brought it to the light. We need more TRUTH LIKE THIS!!!

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