It was a day of pomp and circumstance—and protests, marches, and chains.
One day after the Senate held its first-ever hearing on the DREAM Act, DREAMers, activists, and allies descended on the Capitol again to stage a special graduation ceremony for the “Deportation Class of 2011.” Hundreds of DREAMers from all over the country roamed around the historic Kennedy Caucus Room wearing different colors and styles of gowns.
“This isn’t one of your usual graduations,” said emcees Myrna Orozco and Maricela Aguilar. This was graduation, DREAMer style, and the students had one message for President Obama: End our pain.
Taking the podium today were Mandeep Chahal, a DREAMer from California whose deportation was halted just last week; Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant;” and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), the DREAM Act’s longtime sponsor.
“For the first time in my life, I’m standing before you today a proud DREAMer,” Mandeep said in her speech. She told the audience her story: how she was brought to the U.S. when she was five, how she didn’t know she was undocumented until she was in high school, how she threw herself into schoolwork in the hopes that ignoring her problem could make it go away.
In high school she founded a nonprofit, One Dollar for Life, and was voted “Most Likely to Save the World” by her peers. She enrolled at the University of California-Davis as an honors pre-med student and is on track to go to medical school. And yet, last summer, ICE fitted her with an ankle bracelet. A couple of weeks ago, they tried to deport her, and only a massive grassroots campaign was able to keep her at home.
“If it took all of this for me to stay in my country, something’s wrong,” Mandeep said. “It shouldn’t be this hard. [Obama] can end our pain, but he still continues to deport DREAMers.”
Senator Durbin, who spoke after her, agreed. “We are going to hold President Obama to this promise, that we are for education, not deportation,” he said, vowing to continue the fight.
Jose Antonio Vargas spoke of the need to better publicize the cause, so that more ordinary Americans could be invested.
“Americans don’t hate us,” he said. “They just don’t know us. We need to show them that immigration is not about us, the 11 million undocumented immigrants. It’s about us, the 300 million Americans.”
The graduation ceremony ended with an “Undocumented Student Address” from DREAMer Erika Andiola, who invited all 200-something DREAMers in the room up to the stage. She made them promise to keep fighting for the DREAM Act: “If President Obama doesn’t give us his best,” she vowed, “we’re going to give him our best!”
After the ceremony, the DREAMers marched to the White House for their second protest of the day. “Education not deportation!” they chanted on the way, occasionally drawing support from drivers and passersby. “Obama, Obama, you can’t deport my momma!”
They grew quiet as they approached the White House. “Think about those you’ve lost,” one DREAMer on a megaphone instructed. “Think about all those that this administration has deported. Bring that with you now.”
In front of the White House, the DREAMers lined up in rows and turned their backs to the White House while their friends in immediate deportation proceedings chained themselves together. “End our pain or no campaign!” they chanted, over and over under the hot muggy sun.
“Louder!” the chant leaders amongst them kept saying, for more than an hour. They chanted louder, trying to make sure President Obama inside the White House could hear them.