Equity & Diversity

Mock Graduation Takes Place on Behalf of DREAM Act

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 24, 2009 4 min read
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Several hundred high school and college students, along with young immigrant workers, donned graduation gowns and walked in a procession to “Pomp and Circumstance” today in sight of the U.S. Capitol. They carried signs that said “I graduated. Now what?” and “It’s not my fault my parents brought me here 4 a better future.”

Many of the youths in the mock graduation ceremony—sponsored by the National Council of La Raza—are undocumented, and they traveled here from 16 states to express their hope that Congress will pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. If enacted, the measure would provide a path to legalization for undocumented youths who graduated from U.S. high schools and attend college or serve in the military for two years.

The proposal, authored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., was introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 26, but lawmakers haven’t moved it along. A similar bill was first introduced in both the House and the Senate in 2001, and such measures have been proposed other times since then.

Supporters of the proposed DREAM Act march before the start of a mock graduation ceremony on June 23 in Washington.

Speakers at the ceremony included representatives of the College Board, Microsoft Corp., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a service workers’ union, and immigrant-advocacy groups.

“I take my hat off to you for all that you have overcome,” said Josh Bernstein, the director of immigration for the Service Employees International Union, who was dubbed the “commencement speaker” for the event. “You are the most American of Americans—the essence of the United States is to make a more perfect union.”

He commended the young men and women for their activism in trying to get the legislation passed, saying they are demanding “to be treated the same for God’s sake as some of your brothers and sisters who were born here.”

‘Right to an Education’

Those participating in the event had different kinds of immigration status. Walter Lara, a representative of Students Working for Equal Rights, in Florida, and Benita Veliz, a 23-year-old college graduate from San Antonio, spoke from the podium about how they are both involved in proceedings to be removed from the country.

Gabriela, 18, from Florida, yells in support of the proposed DREAM Act during a rally in Washington on June 23.

Mr. Lara faces a deportation date of July 6. “We act out of necessity,” he said. “Let us never feel ashamed,” said Mr. Lara, speaking to youths who lack a legal status in the United States. “You can’t hide what you are, and it’s not something you can solve alone anyway.”

Ms. Veliz, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 8, spoke about how she was taken to a detention center in January after police pulled her over for allegedly running a stop sign, and turned her over to immigration authorities. She posted bail and says she is fighting for the DREAM Act to be passed as long as she remains in the country.

Three years ago, Ms. Veliz graduated with a biology and sociology degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, but has been unable to use her degree. She worked as a waitress, photographer, babysitter, and tutor before landing a job nine months ago as an administrative assistant in a church office.

Ms. Veliz said that she realizes she has nothing to lose in speaking out publicly about her immigration status, since she is already in deportation proceedings. But she encouraged young people to share their stories about being undocumented and their hopes for the DREAM Act to pass with those whom they trust. “You can lead in your home, in your church, in the taqueria where you might be a dishwasher,” Ms. Veliz said.

Participants in the event included some undocumented high school students who said they are worried about their college prospects, since undocumented students can’t receive financial aid from public sources.

“I want to go to the University of Virginia, but U.Va. doesn’t accept undocumented students,” said Amber, 15, who will be a junior in a Northern Virginia high school this coming school year. (Education Week omitted the last names of youths interviewed or photographed for this story whose undocumented status has not yet been recognized by immigration authorities).

“I want to go to college,” she said. “It would be easier if we had a certain document.” Amber was born in Bolivia, but moved to the United States from Mexico with her mother four years ago on a visa. The visa expired.

A handful of students from Bronx Lab School in New York City, some of whom are U.S. citizens, traveled to Washington to support schoolmates who are undocumented. They’re part of a club that advocates for the DREAM Act, and has been raising money for college scholarships for undocumented graduates from their school.

“I used to be undocumented. I got my green card last year,” said Edrina Asante, 18, a student at Bronx Lab School and a native of Ghana. She came to the United States on a visa that has since run out. “I support the DREAM Act because I feel we all should have a right to an education,” she said.

Critics of the proposed legislation view it as a form of amnesty for people who have broken the nation’s laws.

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