(An edited version of this appeared in Hyphen earlier on September 17, 2012.)
On a blazing, humid afternoon in late July, the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC) in Chicago threw open its doors to the public to celebrate the presentation of DREAM scholarships to three local Asian American student leaders (full disclosure: I was a member of the selection committee.) These scholarships, intended to raise awareness and offset a small portion of the skyrocketing costs of higher education for undocumented students, were awarded in conjunction with the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) and its affiliates, who subsidized the awards through community donations and the avid fundraising efforts of Asian American youth groups.
In the glaring absence of a comprehensive federal passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, local community organizations such as KRCC have taken up the cause to lend support to undocumented students who want to go to college (or, in many cases, are already attending) but cannot qualify for most forms of financial aid because of their status. In Illinois, the movement got a major boost last year when the Illinois Dream Act was signed into law on August 1, 2011, giving children of immigrants — including, for the first time, undocumented youth — access to privately funded scholarships for college education. (At present, twelve states throughout the U.S. have initiated their own limited versions of the DREAM Act.) These local and statewide efforts are driven by the fundamental belief that “all young people should have the right to access higher education, regardless of immigration status,” as KRCC youth organizer Carla Navoa has stated.
The excitement at the KRCC awards ceremony was especially palpable, following closely on the heels of the Obama administration’s historic June announcement that deportations of undocumented youth would immediately be halted, and that qualified DREAMers would be able to apply for two-year work permits starting on August 15. KRCC’s youth group was planning to march in the DREAM Relief rally at Navy Pier on that day; the event, coordinated by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, was expected to attract thousands of applicants and supporters alike. (An estimated 13,000 people ended up showing up to the rally, far outnumbering and overwhelming initial expectations.)
Indeed, the stakes of the executive order are huge: according to the Migration Policy Institute, potentially 1.76 million youth — 9% of them Asian American — qualify for the deferred action program. (For recent Hyphen posts on deferred action, see here, here, and here.)
But as President Obama himself has emphasized, the reprieve is not intended to be an amnesty, immunity, or a path to citizenship: “It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief to talented, driven, patriotic young people.” Once students have passed through the hurdles and expenses of applying, they must wait up to several months for a decision. If their application is rejected, immigration authorities could presumably begin deportation procedures at any time. And even if applicants are deemed eligible, there’s no guarantee that the information they divulge won’t be used against them after the two-year period of reprieve has elapsed — a contingency that itself hinges on Obama’s reelection in November, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney vowing to overturn the deferred action order and to fight any pathway to legalization should he be elected President.
. . .
An original DREAMer
In an emotional speech at the KRCC event to a crowd that included the DREAM scholarship winners, local activists, media, and staff members of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, guest speaker Tereza Lee repeatedly drew attention to the inadequacies of temporary deferred action. “The fight isn’t over until the federal DREAM Act is passed,” Lee stressed.
While many may be aware of the DREAM Act’s legislative origins back in 2001, fewer are familiar with the name of Tereza Lee, who was one of the earliest inspirations for the DREAM Act. Her official bio reads like an Asian American immigrant dream come true: the daughter of South Korean natives, Lee was born in São Paulo, Brazil and emigrated with her family to Chicago at age 2. A classical piano prodigy, Lee honed her skills on a piano donated by a member of her father’s church, and she began entering and winning competitions around the country. At age 16, Lee was awarded a scholarship to Chicago’s Merit School of Music; a year later, she won first prize in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerto Competition and was a featured soloist with the CSO. Lee was accepted to several prestigious conservatories before entering the Manhattan School of Music, where she became the first freshman ever to win the school’s concerto competition. Since graduating from college, Lee has become a U.S. citizen, made her debut at Carnegie Hall, and is now pursuing her doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music.
But this dazzling narrative, while true, obscures the darker tragedies of Lee’s life. Part of the massive post-Korean War immigration wave to the Americas, her parents began a small clothing business in Brazil, but lost everything due to identity theft. Lee’s mother was forced to sell her wedding ring to buy visas and plane tickets for the family to move to the States. Settling down in the diverse, working-class Albany Park neighborhood in northwest Chicago, Lee and her family tried to start over once again. Lee recalled a spartan existence in their basement apartment on Drake Avenue — lacking beds, she huddled with her brothers in a hammock, gritting their teeth through the brutal winters without heat or hot water. During this period, Lee’s mother took a job as a dry cleaner while her father attended a theological school in Chicago. His plan was to change his immigrant status to that of a religious worker, but he was unable to gather the minimum number of members to start a congregation. Before long, his status — and those of the rest of his family — quietly elapsed.
For Lee, the signs started appearing in seventh grade. A stellar student, she was urged by her teachers to skip eighth grade. To her surprise, her father was reluctant to fill out the paperwork that would allow her to do so. Then, a distracted driver on her cell phone collided into Lee’s brother on the street, throwing him into the air. While the impact didn’t kill him, it did keep him in the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Despite all of this, their father refused to file a police report against the driver. Over the next few years, the family went nearly bankrupt trying to pay for the hospital bills out of pocket.
Once Lee realized that she was undocumented, she decided — in an act of wild hope and desperation — that she would save herself and her family from deportation by becoming an accomplished pianist. “It was the only chance I had,” she told the audience softly.
As far-fetched as it might have seemed at the time, however, it was indeed Lee’s musical career that helped galvanize the DREAM Act. When her instructors at the Merit School of Music began prodding her to start looking at colleges, Lee finally admitted to them that she was undocumented. “I was terrified of the consequences,” she said, “but I had to tell them the reason why I couldn’t apply to college, couldn’t apply for financial aid, nothing.” Fired up by the revelation and by her pupil’s enormous talent, Lee’s mentor Ann Monaco, the Merit’s Artistic Director, contacted Senator Dick Durbin to tell him Lee’s story and ask if there was any legal remedy. Immediately, Senator Durbin and several other legislators began to develop what would become the DREAM Act. As more and more stories of undocumented students came to light, Durbin realized the urgency of the Act and, together with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, introduced the bill to the Senate on August 1, 2001.
The Senate hearing of the DREAM Act was scheduled for September 12, 2001. Tereza Lee and other undocumented students were eagerly waiting to board the plane to Washington, D.C. on September 11 to present their life stories and make their case for the bill before the Senate.
Then, the terrorist attacks took place.
All flights were immediately cancelled, the Senate hearing indefinitely postponed. And, as everyone knows, the plight of “illegals” was quickly reshuffled to the bottom of the nation’s priorities for the next decade.
. . .
Still, Lee insisted, things have definitely changed for the better. While she was in college, the DREAMer movement was nonexistent. At school she felt ashamed and utterly alone, plagued constantly by nightmares of authorities bursting through the doors at any moment. Then, more personal tragedy struck: less than a year after the DREAM Act died on the Senate floor, Lee’s beloved mentor and most vocal supporter, Ann Monaco, was killed by a drunk driver while she was going for a jog in her Oak Park neighborhood. Remembering this, Lee suddenly fell silent, tears filling her eyes. In the depths of her grief, Lee considered deporting herself to Brazil. “I was depressed, even suicidal,” she said.
But the loneliness of her own experience as an “outed” undocumented student strengthened Lee’s resolve to share her own story and urge others to come out of the shadows. Now, eleven years after the DREAM Act was first proposed in the Senate, the DREAMer movement is stronger than ever, with increasing national visibility and support. The DREAM Act itself is inching closer and closer to full passage: in 2010, it passed the House of Representatives before getting filibustered in the Senate. The bill was reintroduced in the Senate in 2011, with the long-delayed Senate hearing taking place, finally, on June 28—nearly a decade after Lee and her fellow DREAMers were scheduled to make their case. In an address to the Center for American Progress this summer, Senator Durbin expressed his full confidence that “some day, in the not-too-distant future, the DREAM Act is going to be the law of the land.” The most important test, as Lee reminded the KRCC audience, is coming up this November.
Of course, even if the DREAM Act finally passes, the spotlight on DREAMers will be harsher and more critical than ever before. Addressing this in a recent interview, Lee encouraged her fellow DREAMers to mobilize and persevere. “Stay positive, both in your own lives and in your communications with others,” she urged. “Being caught between the cracks of the immigration system for years can be enormously frustrating and debilitating…[but] when we bring our message to the public, anger won’t work. We need to focus on the benefits that America will receive from allowing all of these talented people to contribute, and then, once the DREAM Act passes, go out and prove it!”
Tereza Lee will be in Chicago on October 12 to receive the Standing Up for Justice Award at the 17th annual KRCC fundraiser.
. . .
Update 9.17.12: Coincidentally, this impassioned take on the centrality of narratives to the DREAMer movement appeared in Colorlines today…