Carlos Padilla crossed the border between Mexico and the United States on foot when he was only two years old. He was too young to remember the journey, but has heard his mother tell the story of how he and his brother, then six, and his four-year-old sister made the journey from Tijuana to Los Angeles.
The Padilla family did not have documentation to reside in the country legally, so for years they lived in the shadows of society familiar to many undocumented immigrants. Padilla first became aware of exactly how his immigration status affected him when he began looking at college applications in his sophomore year of high school.
“When the Social Security number question came up, I knew that was not my reality,” Padilla said. Without being able to apply for financial aid he began to see college as an unobtainable goal. “I realized that I could only pursue my education so far, there was always going to be a wall between me and my dream and that hurt.”
Padilla, now 21, and a student at the University of Washington, is currently a summer intern at the National Education Association. Recently, he and his colleague, David Liendo, shared their powerful stories to show support for comprehensive immigration reform and passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented high-school graduates and GED recipients who meet various requirements, including the completion of at least two years of college or four years of military service.
Padilla and Liendo came to Washington D.C., as participants in the Dream Summer National Internship Program, sponsored by the University of California Los Angeles.
“NEA is especially focused on expanding and passing the DREAM Act, family unity and citizenship,” said Rocío Inclán of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department. “We focus on these three issues because we know they directly impact schools, school communities, our members and their students and their families.”
Liendo, 22, also spoke about the struggles he faced due to his immigration status and chokes up when describing how he hasn’t seen his family since he left Bolivia seven years ago. Liendo came to the U.S. on a 6-month visa, but told his parents he wanted to stay and pursue his education while living with relatives. Liendo’s parents agreed, but did not apply for any type of legal status on his behalf. He is now a student at Cornell University and said he also did not fully understand what it meant to be undocumented until he started preparing for college.
“I was naïve and never thought being undocumented would affect me in the long run,” Liendo said. “But I was willing to do anything to stay here and continue my education.”
Padilla and Liendo currently have temporary permission to remain in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. It allows undocumented youth to remain in the country for two years and temporarily eliminates the possibility of deportation for many who would qualify for the DREAM Act.
For the past several years, Congress has struggled to reach an agreement on immigration reform or the DREAM Act. Most recently, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act was passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate in June. The bill would put “DREAMers” on an accelerated path to citizenship after five years of provisional status.
The bill, however, faces an uphill struggle in the House of Representatives, where it faces unified GOP opposition. Even as gridlock persists on Capitol Hill, DREAMers like Padilla and Liendo continue to advocate and organize by forming clubs or organizations at their schools or universities and in their communities. DREAMers want to put a face to the immigration debate by sharing their stories and spearheading rallies and sit-ins. Operation Butterfly was one such imitative where three young people, including Padilla, were reunited with their mothers at the border after years of estrangement, crying and hugging through the fence. Padilla’s mother left the U.S. several years ago to attend her brother’s funeral and has not been able to return.
“We are trying to break a system that builds fear in our community, and the border represents that fear,” Padilla said. “The only way we can challenge fear is by showing bravery. I am undocumented, unashamed and unafraid.”