National Dream Graduation, Redux

Every June for the past 12 years, undocumented students from around the country have traveled to Washington urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act, holding a “mock graduation ceremony” followed by lobby visits to their respective Congresspersons. This year was no different, with The National Immigrant Youth Alliance bringing over 500 undocumented students from at least 17 states down to the Capitol. And this year, we also had Andres Benach from Benach Ragland LLP, talk to a self-selected group of students about Obama’s deferred action policy, clearing up some misconceptions and dishing out great legal information.

Graduation has historically been a bittersweet event for many undocumented youth, unable to move forward. The “mock graduation” – now called the National Dream Graduation – symbolizes the estimated 70,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, unable to pursue higher education because they lack papers. This year was a bit different. Due to the hard organizing work of many young undocumented people around the country, President Obama has issued a directive to not deport undocumented youth, and instead, allowed us to come forward affirmatively and apply for deferred action. While deferred action is certainly not enough, for the first time in history, many of these young people are graduating and will graduate with hope and dreams of a future. And even if they don’t graduate with high hopes and dreams of a future, I think Kemi Bello, a friend and undocumented youth from Texas, sums it up best:

“I urge you to challenge the traditional notion of the milestones we must meet in life in order to be successful. Whether it takes you 4 years or 7 to finish college, or you decide not to go at all, or are not able to go; whether you wear your “I Am Undocumented” shirt to the grocery store or have only told one person that you are undocumented; whether you are working 3 jobs or are organizing full-time – own your story, own your experience and never apologize for how different your life has turned out to be from some pre-determined ‘norm.’ For it is the uniqueness of our individual stories and experiences that makes our collective story as undocumented youth so powerful.”

And indeed, the event was one of a kind, with unique individual stories that did not fit the norm. Dulce Guerrero (GA), Viridiana Martinez (NC) and Cynthia Martinez did wonders MC-ing. Marco Saavedra from Ohio owned the room with his powerful rendition of Langston Hughes for the convocation. Alejandra Pimentel, a mother fighting her son’s deportation, shared some great words with us, telling us that her dream was our success and that we should never give up. Little J shared the poem he wrote for Michelle Obama that he couldn’t share it with her because he lacked a social security number. Alicia Torres had a vital message for everyone in the movement to nurture themselves so that they could be a source of positive energy. Even YOLO made it to the graduation, thanks to Vicko Alvaro from USAS.

And of course, 10 minutes before the start of the event, I found out that I had the honor (and terrifying duty) of delivering the commencement speech to 500 people. I would like to thank the person who let me hurriedly borrow his cap and gown for the ceremony! I decided that jaded activist humor was the way to go. It seems to have worked, or at least, I don’t have any displeased emails. Even the Pastor kindly told me later that he enjoyed my speech and that the Luther Church welcomes LGBT people.

The National Dream Graduation is usually the one of the only times when undocumented youth activists from around the country who work together virtually get to be in the same room with one another. I remember meeting Walter Lara, Maria Marroquin, Kemi, Bello, Cintia Felix and so many other impressive young people for the first time at my first National Dream Graduation in Washington D.C. in 2009. It seems like such a long time ago, even though it has only been three years.

This year, I saw some old friends for the first time in ages. I also met some new people such as young South Asian American immigrant activists Yves Gomes and Ashwini Jaisingh from Casa de la Maryland. My own partner spoke on behalf of her Congressperson! And I had the pleasure of running into Tim, a U.S. citizen, whose partner is languishing in detention in Michigan, highlighting the need for immigration relief for same-sex bi-national couples. I hope we are able to get his partner the help he needs so that they can continue to stay together. That would certainly be the cherry on top of the icing of a truly great event.

Most of my friends were riled up and denouncing the Supreme Court, SB 1070 ruling, which actually is not a bad decision, but a pleasantly good one. President Obama’s policies like Secure Communities (S-COMM) and his record-breaking deportation of over 1 million people is what deserves continued denunciation even as we welcome his decision to grant deferred action to an estimated 1.4 million young people.

And much like graduation from high school, we’ve made some progress, but the war continues.


National Dream Graduation Speech

My name is Prerna Lal. I’m not really undocumented anymore, but I’m in deportation proceedings, and I’m unafraid, so that should count for something. I’d like to welcome everyone to Washington D.C., which has been my home for two years now.

This is the first time I’ve been in a church, since I was caught making out with a girl in a church as a teenager. But we won’t discuss that right now. We’ll table that for the social hour tonight.

Four years ago, when we launched, we were young, full of energy, and enthusiasm. Now, we are old, tired and jaded. (See “How to be Jaded” here). Like most of you, I’ve been waiting for the day that I could leave this country. I’m still waiting. My dreams are still deferred.

But I’ve learned some incredible lessons as a part of this movement. And I’ve been asked to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned to a new generation of undocumented youth. So listen up, take good notes, because you will not hear this anywhere else:

    • You can do a hunger strike for two whole weeks and still not lose any weight;
    • You don’t get to have any papers till you get placed in deportation proceedings;
    • You have to make sure that your best artists aren’t occupying offices or walking across the country because then, there is no one left to actually paint the banners for this event;
    • You can fly across the country, and maybe even leave the country in a few months, but still not know how to swim;
    • You can’t get a job anywhere but somehow your allies get to keep their jobs every year that comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act don’t pass;
    • You go to border patrol to get arrested in a civil disobedience action, but the border patrol agent already knows your name, where you live and where your parents live and invites you to breakfast the next morning;
    • You can’t even occupy an ICE detention center, hope to get detained and get free room/board paid for by CCA and Geo Group – they don’t want us in there so you need to find another way to free-load;
    • You can break all the laws you want to (as long as you don’t get caught), but there is one rule you cannot break, and that is: NEVER MARRY ANOTHER UNDOCUMENTED PERSON. So don’t get too social during social hour.

Despite the pessimism or cautious optimism, I think we won a big victory two weeks ago with Obama’s announcement. You should all be proud of how much you’ve achieved in such a short time. But there is so much more left to do.

We are miles behind our fellow Americans. We have yet to learn how to get into massive credit card and student loan debt. We have yet to start exploiting whatever is left of welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and social security benefits. We cannot yet go to other countries, topple their governments and insist that they only speak English. We are still not doing our part in bringing about climate change so we need to hurry up, get our driver’s licenses so we can buy vehicles and catch up with other Americans on greenhouse gas emissions. And we’ve yet to achieve our goal of open borders, not just for corporations, but for people.

I will leave it to the next generation of Dreamers* (undocumented youth), to finish that laundry list of things to do. And remember, never stop dreaming because dreams do come true.