Waking from a DREAM

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Student sit-in at Sen. John McCain's office

The Senate finally took up the DREAM Act Saturday only to allow it to die by five votes. Some students, wearing their graduation caps and gowns in the Senate gallery wept as the bill went down. It had been a long, hard fight including hunger strikes, blood drives, phone banks and nonstop lobbying of congressional members to pass the bill, which would have given a path to legalization for at least one million undocumented students.

It was a Matterhorn ride from the narrow victory in the House to the stinging defeat in the Senate a week later. The divide was largely along partisan lines with Democrats voting for the bill and Republicans against it. There were a few notable exceptions: Sens. Richard Lugar R-Ind.; Lisa Murkowski R-Alaska; and Bob Bennett R-Utah voted for the DREAM Act. Five Democrats voted against the proposal including Sens. Ben Nelson D-Neb., Mark Pryor D-Ark., Jon Tester D-Mt., Max Baucus D-Mt. and Kay Hagan D-N.C..

Fourteen students from UT Austin traveled to D.C. to lobby legislators on the bill. They drove 1,500 miles in a van and have been sleeping on floors and couches in D.C. while they advocate for the DREAM Act. I reached one of the students today, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, and asked him what they’d do now that the DREAM Act was on hold. His answer surprised me.

“It’s being portrayed as a loss in the media,” he said. “But for us in the DREAM Act movement we feel like we’ve made a lot of gains. We’ve come a long way since 2007 (the last time it was brought up for a vote) when we had no student leaders. This was the first time an immigration bill had passed in the House in a very long time,” he said. (It was also the first time in a decade since it was introduced that the DREAM Act had passed in one of the congressional chambers.)

As we spoke, he and the rest of the students were driving through D.C. traffic on their way to the U.S. Capitol to thank legislators for their support.  The sophomore said he and other students had been complimented by congressional staffers on their lobbying efforts. “They told us this was the best lobbying effort they’d seen,” he said “In one day more than 100,000 calls were made to legislative offices.”

Altogether, at least 50 students traveled from all over the state of Texas to Congress to lobby on the DREAM Act legislation. They joined thousands of students from all over the United States.  The UT sophomore said that students involved in the DREAM Act movement will stay involved in the political process. “We visited Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office every day and spoke with her staff,” he said. “But in the end she voted with her party. The only way to change her mind is through politics.”

Most students don’t expect the Republican dominated House in 2011 to take up immigration reform. They expect it will be at least two more years, which is a shame. In the meantime, we’ll have nurses, biomedical engineers and business majors who can’t work in their professions. Instead, they’ll have to work under the table as waitresses or busboys. Before the bill was brought up in Congress, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported passage of the DREAM Act would reduce the deficit by $2.2 billion over the next decade. The CBO said this would be due to the students working as professionals in their fields and paying more taxes.

But now, they’ll just have to wait and advocate for another chance in Congress.

“We’re sad about what happened,” said the UT student. “But now we know we can organize and we’re going to remember those who had the political courage to vote for the DREAM Act.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.