In a show of solidarity for 4 immigrant students and their walk from New York City to Washington, DC, Swatties For A DREAM gathered approximately fifteen Swatties to an eleven-mile walk with these students from Philadelphia to Swarthmore. Called the “Trail of DREAMs”, these students’ walk from New York to Washington is to bring awareness about immigration reform and the importance of the DREAM Act.
Walking a total of 220 miles, these students left their home and families on April 10th and are aiming to arrive in DC on May 1st, in time for the rally for International Workers’ Day and a demonstration about important domestic issues, from immigration reform to healthcare rights. Throughout their walk, they are holding press conferences about the need for immigration reform in America, specifically advocating for the DREAM Act.
Drafted in 2001, the DREAM Act provides undocumented youth access to higher education, including financial aid for in-state tuition and granting conditional permanent residence for 6 years. If passed in Congress, it would be the first major legislation regarding immigration issues since 1986.
Rafael Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center, said, “Given the social, economic and demographic trends in the US, we all stand to lose if talented young undocumented immigrants — many of whom have already overcome tremendous obstacles just to graduate high school — are deprived support to attain a college education.”
As it stands right now, the DREAM Act grants conditional permanent residence for 6 years given several provisions. To qualify, undocumented immigrants must have been in the country before their 16th birthday, have good moral character, and completed high school. These students also must complete 2 years of higher education or 2 years of military service. While many immigration reform supporters oppose the military service component since students can easily choose this option due to the hardships of affording college. The most recent vote for the DREAM Act in Congress was in 2007, but it fell short of 4 votes in the Senate.
Currently, the newly chartered group, Swatties for a DREAM, is pushing for President Chopp’s support for the DREAM Act and finding concrete ways to show youth that higher education is accessible. Jovanna Hernandez ’13, Jusselia Molina ’13, and Evelyn Fraga ’13 are founders of the DREAM Act Coalition, which eventually became Swatties for a DREAM. Hernandez, Molina, and Fraga’s initial goals were to reach out to the IC/BCC community to build “a coalition of organizations that supported our initiative to ask for President Chopp’s public support.”
The walk itself was very inspirational for many DREAM activists. Hernandez enthuses, “It was an opportunity to experience only a insight of this powerful journey— only 11 miles out of the 250 that the walkers we joined will walk and 1,500 miles that undocumented students have walked from Miami, Florida earlier this year.”
Dean Zapata, serving an informal advisor and supporter of Swatties for a DREAM, explains, “I admire the hard work and determination of the DREAM Act Coalition, and the courage of those who have shared their personal and family stories of how this situation has affected them.”
However, this group has branched out to working with less privileged communities, including undocumented youth and low-income students. They are currently working with a North Philadelphia charter school, Mariana Bracetti Academy, in setting up a mentorship program.
The “Trail of Dreams” walk from Philadelphia to Swarthmore is the group’s capstone event so far, but the group has also held events including a DREAM act interest meeting, lectures, documentary screening, and an immigration march in DC.
Daniel Symonds ’11, who is a member of Swatties for a DREAM and served as an overnight host for these four students, said he supported for the act since for its promotion of equal and open access to higher education. “Their only crime is having been born in other countries, and simply because of a little geography these capable english-speaking successful American students have no access to financial aid programs, federal help, job opportunities, and live under constant threat of deportation,” said Symond.
For many of these “DREAMers”—these students who are walking, they have personally experienced struggles in accessing to education due to their immigration status.
Jose Luis, 29, came to New York as an undocumented immigrant when he was ten years old and after graduating high school, he wanted to continue his education in college. However, he could not afford college and because of his immigration status, he can only work low-paid jobs, which is a slow process in saving enough money for college. He explains, “As an undocumented student, I do not have access to financial aid or scholarships. If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the right to education.”
In a year, Luis will not qualify for the DREAM Act because it only offers aspiring students before the age of 30 access to financial aid and education. However, this walk for Luis is more about serving future generations of undocumented students. Despite the risk of exposing himself to the press as an undocumented immigrant, Luis explains, “I have nothing to lose, I have a lot to win. If I don’t expose myself, so many young people will go through the same things that I have been through.”
Those “same things” are the barriers that immigrant children experience after high school. According to Jusselia Molina ’13, one of the organizers for the walk from Philadelphia to Swarthmore and co-founder of Swatties for a DREAM, many of these undocumented students have been raised in the United States in American schools with an American identity and it is unfair to deport them back to a country that they are entirely unfamiliar with.
On the other hand, these four DREAM walkers each have unique stories and individual experiences surrounding their immigration status. Gabriel Martinez, 27, is an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the US when he was ten years old. With his parents’ financial support, he has completed an Associates degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Criminal Justice. Unlike many other states in the US, New York State is one of the ten states that allow undocumented students into the higher education system.
After college, Martinez has been working on creating a bill for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR); however, Martinez believes that the DREAM Act, as a complete bill, is an urgent piece of legislation that needs to be passed now before waiting for CIR. In his experiences in this walk, Martinez describes, “We come across talking to people, talking about our experiences as DREAMers and the barriers that are closed after college. By walking, we are sending a strong message to all people.”
In contrast, Marisol Ramos, 25, was born in the United States after her parents arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants 30 years ago. After receiving a BA in English Literature and Theory at Hunter College, she has been organizing for the DREAM Act for the past six years. For her, this walk is in support for all her undocumented friends and family members. She elaborates, “Everyone is undocumented except me…We all have the same lives, but they are missing a Social Security number and that makes a world of a difference.”
According to Jose Luis, undocumented students walking from Florida to Washington, DC for the DREAM Act first inspired this idea and in early February, Luis and several other students from the New York State Youth Leadership Council started talking about walking from New York to DC.
Since April 10th, these four students have been walking approximately thirteen to eighteen miles per day. They are walked 130 to 140 miles so far and are officially halfway. They typically start walking around 8 to 9 am, taking an hour break at 1pm, and continue walking until 5:30 to 6pm. At night, student groups from universities and colleges like Swarthmore College and Princeton University host these students.
For the past ten days, they have walked past both urban environments and rural ones. Luis, the official GPS of the group, describes several scary experiences in their walk. The group has walked in rural, unpopulated areas where the walking road is narrow and cars whiz by them at 60 miles per hour. They have also walked past the Immigration Custom Control Officer. Additionally, they have walked past cars where people scream out, “Illegals go home” or “The DREAM Act, it’s a nightmare”.
However, these unpredictable, unwelcome experiences are rare. Ramos elaborates, “We received a lot more support than we received bigotry along the way. People have opened their homes to us. Even though we haven’t met before, we are trusting them and we all believe in the same cause.”
She cites this one experience where these DREAMers came across a Tea Party Protest at the State House in Trenton and one man from the Tea Party approached them asking what they were doing. After the students explained their cause, the man gave them 5 dollars.
With another 130 miles to achieve their ultimate goal, these four immigrant students hope to send across their personal message through media outlets, politicians, campuses across the East Coast, and constituents across America.
They hope that the DREAM Act will not only achieve their personal dreams, but also others in their same position. Luis aspires to be a high school counselor. He describes, “I had an experience with my counselor where she broke my heart. She said that I shouldn’t even think about going to college. It was the wrong information. I want young people to have access to good counselors to inspire you and not to tell you that you can’t.”