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Immigrant DREAMer: our struggles intersect

Thu, Mar 1, 2012

Artwork by an 8-year-old child at St. John Bosco Church showing her mom being deported. The artwork was shown during a session for mental health professionals at the Immigration Summit.

Sometimes after U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has finished speaking to immigrant groups, undocumented young people will seek him out and express their thanks.

“I am a DREAMer,” they will say, referring to the bill Durbin introduced that would offer a path to citizenship for law-abiding young people who have spent most of their lives in the United States. Currently in subcommittees of both the U.S. Senate and House, the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors act would require two years of college or military service.

Just like women’s suffrage in the 1900s or civil rights in the 1960s, “immigration is an issue for our times,” Durbin told the 2nd annual Illinois Immigrant Integration Summit sponsored by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) February 4 at Malcolm X College.

“Stand up for those who only ask for the American Dream,” Durbin said. He added that to press his case with his Senate colleagues, he only tells them the stories of young people like Alaa Mukahhal, who is currently facing deportation hearings and who was an organizer of the event.

Alaa is a citizen of Jordan but originally a Palestinian who graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a degree in architecture. She moved to the U.S. in 1993, at 7 years old and was introduced to the audience amid cheers and applause. She was unassuming, wore glasses and a traditional hijab, yet her modest appearance belied a great confidence and passion that becomes immediately evident once she speaks.

She spends much of her time as an organizer for the Immigrant Youth Justice League, a Chicago-based non-profit organization led by undocumented youth that works towards “full recognition of the rights and contributions of all immigrants.”

Does she think it takes a possibly threatening situation – such as the one she and others at IYJL face — to get today’s youth politically active?
“I don’t think so,” she responded. “I think we all go through different struggles and all of our struggles intersect. In my case, I had leaders around me who kept pushing me and who trusted me in organizing political events. I think it’s about offering young people the opportunity for leadership instead of treating them as children.” Last April Alaa sought an alternate route and applied for asylum status as a Jordanian citizen. Instead she received a notice of deportation proceedings. Her court hearing is scheduled for September 18.

Being told that they are lucky to have a degree does not help young people if they cannot use it to get a job, according to material presented at a summit session for mental health professionals who work with undocumented immigrants. Fear of deportation is a stress on its own but the reality can also mean damage to family structure. In addition, immigrants often have low income and limited access to physical and mental health care.

The ICIRR conference aimed not only to ensure a chance for undocumented immigrants to earn their citizenship, but also to structure ways in which the immigrant population can benefit society, whether engaging other parents in education or running for a Local School Council in the Chicago Public Schools.

One session, for example, provided free legal counsel for undocumented immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship; the application fee was also waived for households earning annual salaries at the 150 percent poverty level or less. A Mexican immigrant, originally from the state of Guerrero and undocumented for 31 years, spoke of the “great sense of relief and happiness” in just filling out the application. She described the undocumented life as “a constant limitation and worry because many immigrants want to be documented and want a chance to pursue better lives but they can’t.”

Ambrosio Martinez, a licensed clinical social worker and ICIRR organizer, said ICIRR sought both civic and economic benefits to naturalization. “We want to get them involved in society whether economically, by taking out loans and getting better jobs, or politically. Being able to vote and express a voice on who they want to represent them is also a major goal.”

A session on ICIRR’s Uniting America program featured panels with its West Suburban Action Program (aka P.A.S.O in Spanish), Arab American Family Services, and Mujeres Latinas en Accion. Mary Claire Schmit, a Uniting America volunteer, said the goals of the project are to encourage Illinois residents to volunteer in areas where they encounter and interact with immigrants. Uniting America has support from the office of Gov. Pat Quinn, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

One thing that became very clear as I attended more and more of the sessions was how many of those were volunteers. From lawyers to counselors and organizers, many of those volunteering were very young as well.

Much of the work ICIRR does involves placing constant pressure on lawmakers to ensure immigrant rights are factored into policy decisions. A workshop entitled “Ride the Bus” outlined strategies for securing commitments from state legislators toward pro-immigrant policies. The session was facilitated by Jesse Hoyt, a suburban organizer for ICIRR; and by Gabriel Lopez, a legislative strategist who has worked on the “Ride the Bus” initiatives since 1992. Each “Ride the Bus” event includes 15 – 30 buses full of young volunteers who ride to Springfield to visit specific legislators. If the lawmaker is willing to commit to the agenda, the bus riders will make follow up visits. A main aim of the project is to promote civic engagement amongst youth.

During the closing rally, Gov. Quinn announced the members of the Illinois DREAM Fund Commission, which will oversee a nonprofit scholarship fund for college scholarships to be used by undocumented graduates of Illinois high schools. Quinn signed the Illinois DREAM Act last August but its work awaited the appointees.

Eric Diaz, a sociology student currently earning his associate’s degree at Waubonsee Community College, attended the conference for a school project. When asked about his overall thoughts for the conference he said it’s been “an educational experience, I think everyone should attend something like this.”

Written by Eduardo Salinas
StreetWise Contributor

– Suzanne Hanney contributing

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One Response to “Immigrant DREAMer: our struggles intersect”

  1. Christian says:

    It still inspires me how these people live and thrive while facing deportation, while going to school, while working and trying to grow. It disgusts me to know we live in a society that rejects the hard work and humanity of undocumented people.

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