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Voices of Dreamers 

With Obama's Deferred Action program, more and more immigrant youth are telling their stories

Page 3 of 3

By the time a police officer came to tell him that his friend had posted bail, Jorge was numb. "My name gets called at five, and I'm watching the clock," he remembers, with relief. "My eyes were dry—I didn't have tears anymore."

click to enlarge PROUD FACE Pillo is open about his status, he says, to show other immigrant youth that 'there's a light at the end of the tunnel.'
  • PROUD FACE Pillo is open about his status, he says, to show other immigrant youth that 'there's a light at the end of the tunnel.'

Jose—or "Pillo," as he prefers to be called—arrived in the United States with his mother and sister at the age of 12. His family entered with a visa, but after two years, when the visa expired, Pillo stayed. From then on, he began life as an undocumented student.

Now in his 20s, Pillo has had to adjust to life after Deferred Action. He's still not used to the perks. Sometimes he forgets that he can wave at police officers instead of avoiding eye contact. After receiving his driver's license, he was pulled over around the corner from his house. When the officer asked for his license and registration, out of habit, Pillo replied that he didn't have one. "When he repeated, 'You don't have one?' I remembered, 'Wait a minute, I do.'"

Although Pillo is thankful for what Deferred Action has given him, he adds, "Its only temporary, it doesn't fix anything. Who knows? Two years from now, I could be back in limbo."

As of now, Pillo's main concern is to push for broader change. "They won't hear one, but they'll hear millions," he says. Pillo is a member of the DREAM Alliance of Sonoma County, an organization dedicated to helping pass immigration reform. "We're not going to stop until it happens," he says.

Although Pillo has shared his story in Washington, D.C., it wasn't easy for Pillo to "come out" as an undocumented student. The first time he did, he was in a political science class at Santa Rosa Junior college. Pillo had been the quiet kid in the back of the classroom who didn't say much until one day, his class watched a film on immigration. The teacher asked for opinions from the class, and a girl in the front row went "off about how the illegals were taking all the scholarships," he says.

After sitting though her speech, Pillo had enough. He got up in front of the class and said, "Undocumented students don't get any financial aid, everything is out-of-pocket. I'm not telling you from someone's friend or someone's cousin—I'm telling you from personal experience." The girl was so ashamed she grabbed her stuff and walked out, and according to Pillo, the mentality of the class changed from that moment on.

Pillo doesn't always get positive reactions. A girl he had been friends with through high school once said she was disappointed in him for being "one of those people that she always hated." And Pillo knows there are many young Latinos struggling with the same problems he did.

"That's why I speak," he says. "Yes, it's rough, but I want people to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

At his job and in his volunteer work, Rafael talks to hundreds of DREAMers every month, and sees firsthand the way their fear and their families' fear is exploited. "There are individuals that are taking advantage of other individuals, and it's all about making money," he says.

Rafael is head of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services department at Santa Rosa Junior College. He devotes most of his time to helping DREAMers find scholarships and financial aid, and, since the announcement of Deferred Action, has spent many unpaid hours helping hundreds of others apply. One of the youngest he helped was two months old when she came to the United States. "She has saluted the flag since she could," says Rafael, "and yet now her fate in this country is one day here, maybe the next she's gone."

Rafael has seen plenty of desperate families willing to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars to have their applications for Deferred Action filled out by attorneys or other "experts" because they're afraid of having their paperwork rejected. Hearing of these scams has motivated him and his team to hold three-hour application workshops; in an economy where many families are struggling, taking advantage of hopeful applicants is unjust, he says. Most have had to work more than one job in order to pay for school.

Although Rafael does his best to warn DREAMers of scammers, he also tries to let them know that there is help out there. He says that for every con artist, there will also be churches and government officials "who just come together to provide a service that needs to happen. And I think that that's what makes this country great from that point of view—that when there is a need, people come together and they help each other."

While the program has brought some people together, it has also caused sibling rivalry, Rafael says. "We are already seeing a little bit of conflict between younger siblings who say, 'Why does she qualify, but I don't?'" Not that this is new to him; Rafael has also seen many families where only some family members are American citizens. "It's common where you bring children who are seven or eight years of age," he explains, "and as soon as you get here you settle down and you end up having another child or two children."

What Rafael finds the most interesting is the fact that the immigrant child tends to be more successful than the one who is a citizen. "When you realize that you're undocumented," he says, "you see the need to work harder." Not all families are divided by citizenship status, however. In some households, Rafael has seen older siblings who aren't eligible for Deferred Action willing to work extra to pay for a younger sibling who qualifies.

Although Deferred Action doesn't offer as much as Rafael would like, he notes how it's brought people together. "Being undocumented is a solitude situation," he says. "You don't tell your friends, you don't tell your enemies, you don't tell anybody, really. It's a very private, stressful, emotional situation." As a result of his workshops, up to 80 people have been able to look around the room to see others in the same situation. "It is amazing to see that level of unity; where you get to see your neighbor, and this is the first time that you notice your neighbor is also undocumented."

Rafael hopes that what he's noticed as a change in attitude about immigration will continue. The younger generation, in particular, is more accepting of DREAMers. "They know that a lot of their friends are undocumented," he says, "and if [ICE] was to come over and try to take their friend away, they would do whatever was necessary to prevent that from happening."

He credits this new attitude to the young DREAMers who have spoken up and fought for this change.

"It was the youth who wrote in Time magazine," he says, "it was the youth who have all those videos on YouTube where the students are telling their stories. They started this movement."

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