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The soundtrack at the headquarters of the Orange County Dream Team in Santa Ana is one of dial tones and cell-phone beeps, followed by the same sentence repeated almost simultaneously, word for word, pause for pause, by a dozen students, as though it’s a mantra. Yesenia Capellino tries to reach Sam Brownback of Kansas; three call Texas’ Kay Bailey Hutchinson at the same time. Looming over everyone is the official logo of the Dream Team: the iconic California illegal-immigrant freeway-crossing sign, now featuring the silhouettes of three students in graduation robes, clutching diplomas.
They’re all calling to ask senators if they’ll support the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a proposed bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for college students and military enlistees who came to this country illegally as young children and know no other home. Dream Team members have phone-banked at their cramped office—really, just a ring of chairs around a small table, circled by more chairs—since 7 in the morning until the evening seven days a week for three weeks in a row. It’s finals week in colleges across Orange County; some students have laptops and study guides next to prepared scripts to use on senators. But their drive isn’t deterred.
“I’m not leaving until I have to go take my statistics test,” says Alexis Nava Teodoro, a Santa Ana College student who’s transferring to Cal State Long Beach next year. He’s waiting to speak with a representative for Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning. Finally, Teodoro gets a response: The senator will not support the DREAM Act.
“We should call him even more,” one student remarks, to the smiles of his friends who are making calls. “Just to let him know we won’t stop.”
A weary Teodoro laughs. “Maybe he’ll be like, ‘They’ve bothered us so much. Just pass it already.’”
The students call with a calm, respectful intensity that belies their precarious situation. On Dec. 7, the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, an important milestone in the decade-long fight by immigrant-rights activists. But the bill still has to pass the Senate, where opposition is tougher, and it has to happen before the current Democrat-led Congressional session is over; next year, Republicans taking control of the House promise to defeat any Dream Act.
Whatever the final outcome, Orange County activists have proven to be among the most influential members of the DREAM Act movement.
The country’s most prominent Dreamer (as undocumented college students call themselves) was Tam Tran, a Brown University doctoral candidate who attended Santa Ana College; her untimely death on a Maine highway over the summer galvanized the movement (see “A DREAM Act Undeterred,” May 27). Tran’s picture hangs in the Dream Team’s office, along with a votive candle featuring her name.
In July, Anaheim High School and UC Irvine graduate Antonia Rivera was one of 20 students arrested for refusing to leave Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Cal State Fullerton graduates Jorge Gutierrez and Noemi Degante were among another group of undocumented students arrested Nov. 17 for staging a sit-in outside Arizona Senator John McCain’s Washington, D.C., office and refusing to leave. Former Weekly intern Matias Ramos has walked the halls of Congress for the past couple of years, advocating for undocumented students like himself.
In Los Angeles, local students and activists have tied up traffic for hours by chaining themselves in the middle of busy intersections.
From Austin, Flavia de la Fuente “tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” she says. She’s the editor of DreamActivist.org, the premier website for undocumented students and their supporters. The Irvine native coordinates e-mail blasts and phone trees and sets up press interviews nationwide for news organizations wanting to interview undocumented students for their regional markets. “Since I know where everyone is,” de la Fuente says, “it’s easy for me to pull up their information.”
She was a senior at Woodbridge High in 2006 when more than 30,000 people marched on the streets of Santa Ana to protest an anti-immigrant bill before Congress at the time. “I was the only person in my class who wanted to go,” she recalls. At UCLA, she befriended people whom de la Fuente found out later were undocumented. “I was always sympathetic to immigration, period,” says the child of Chilean immigrants. “But it became personal at UCLA. When I found out I could do something for my friends, there was no way I couldn’t not try to help for the DREAM Act.”
Her most dramatic show of support came at UCLA’s graduation this summer, when de la Fuente, the student commencement speaker, urged her fellow Bruins to support the measure.
Orange County Dreamers have faced withering criticism from local elected officials, however. Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher threatened to try to pull federal funding from Santa Ana College after it announced a scholarship in memory of Tran for undocumented college students. On the House floor, the Republican congressman derisively referred to the DREAM Act as “ the Affirmative Action Amnesty Act” and claimed it would actively discriminate against white people. “Those voting for this so-called DREAM Act are voting to relegate the position of non-minority American citizens to behind those who are now in this country illegally,” he stated. On KFI-AM 640’s John and Ken Show, Fullerton-area Republican congressman Ed Royce claimed the act would lead to illegal immigrants going online to buy fake high-school and college diplomas. Meanwhile, Barbara Coe of the virulently anti-immigrant California Coalition for Immigration Reform—which has hosted Rohrabacher many times—urged her followers to call senators to oppose the DREAM Act, which she has asserted in the past will lead to the murders of Americans.
But it’s precisely this rhetoric in their home base that makes Orange County Dreamers so ready to fight, says Dream Team co-chairperson Vanessa Castillo.
“We know what kind of battlefield we live in,” she says. “Living in OC and being aware of all the racism motivates me to do more. . . . Whether it passes or doesn’t, the work doesn’t stop. There are students who still won’t qualify.”
Castillo stops talking. She picks up her Hello Kitty cell phone and resumes calling senators. The rest of the room follows.
This article appeared in print as "DREAM Catchers: From Santa Ana to Texas to Capitol Hill, Orange County residents prove among the most prominent advocates of the DREAM Act."