When first-year art history major Jasmine Cepeda first heard about the Dream Act, a piece of legislation giving undocumented students a pathway to citizenship, she never thought it would apply to her in the future. That was until her good friend Jessica Martinez “came out of the shadows” as being undocumented.
Martinez, known for being a dedicated student, shared her story and it hit Cepeda hard, – so much so that it became the inspiration for her club the Dream Team, which she created on this campus this fall.
“These undocumented students came here when they were young, this is their country,” Cepeda said. “They’re considered Americans, they consider themselves Americans at heart. They came here when they were young at no fault of their own.”
Cepeda considers her first reaction to the Dream Act as typical of most who hear of it and initially do not see how it applies to them. However, she believes once you realize these are youth just like you, you understand the importance of the situation. She was shocked to hear of Martinez’s illegal status, as she was well-known in the school for academic success and community service.
Martinez participated in a summer leadership program for underrepresented students at Princeton University during her senior year of high school and upon returning had dreams of attending the university. However, her undocumented status discouraged her and it only worsened when the Dream Act passed the House of Representatives last December, but did not pass through senate by five votes. Cepeda recalls Dec. 22 as the day she and Martinez began discussing why the act did not pass and ended up in tears, but they refused to give up.
“We were like, ‘You know what we can’t get discouraged because it’s going to happen,’” Cepeda said. “The only way it’s not gonna happen is if we quit advertising and bringing awareness to this act that’s the only way it’s not gonna pass.”
Although Martinez was accepted to Princeton and now studies there, she had been nervous about the cost, thinking she might have to go to a SUNY or CUNY despite her 96 GPA and 2100 SAT score.
Martinez’s case was not a unique one though, as there are 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high schools every year, according to Cepeda.
“It’s 65,000 students who have potential for college and they just don’t get a chance,” Cepeda said. “Luckily she [Martinez] got a chance because she was persistent, but there are lots of others who just don’t because they see the system and they see there’s no way. The laws aren’t changing right not, it’s at a stand still.”
When Cepeda discusses the legislation, she says “we,” because it is a youth led movement. She feels it is not just the stories of undocumented students, but rather it is “our story.”
“We’re all youth and we’re all students who want an education in this country and who are we to say go back to your country? That’s not their country, this is their country,” Cepeda said. “They are in their country.”
Cepeda believes people don’t understand is how difficult it is for an undocumented person to get legal papers. She says the public is not aware of how complicated the process is, such as getting a visa, which one must apply for in the foreign country. This would mean deportation to a country these people do not even recognize or know and even if they were to do that they would need a US citizen to sponsor and petition them. Most do not have these family members though, or they would not be in this predicament.
“These kids came here when they were young, they know our language, they went through the whole K-12 system. This is their country. They don’t even affiliate with the country they were born in,” Cepeda said. “So to tell them to go back to their country, that’s not right. People don’t understand it’s not easy to get papers and this is their country. The dream act is the only way that they could get citizenship.”
To receive the benefits of the Dream Act they must fulfill the requirements, which include having come to the United States when they were 15 years old or younger and have graduated from high school or obtained a GED from the U.S. The maximum age they can be is 35. They must have good moral character, which is defined as being felony free.
After meeting that criteria, they receive conditional permanent residence status, which lasts for six years and allows them to take out student loans and get work study, but limits their traveling to 365 days out of the full six years and does not provide them financial aid. Following those six years, they may apply for permanent residence, but the previous years that had to have been spent in a higher institution or served in the military for two years.
Believing this legislation is the key to undocumented students’ citizenship, Cepeda joined the New York State Leadership Council in June, an organization run by undocumented studentFeatus in New York City. She attended an event to teach undocumented students leadership skills and how they could establish a Dream Team on their own campus.
“I made it one of my priorities, I’m going to college and I see the Dream Team like a class, as important as a class,” Cepeda said. “Right away I started telling people at orientation ‘I’m going to create a Dream Team here’ and I would describe what the Dream Act is, because not a lot of people understand the Dream Act or know what it is.”
While the first meeting was somewhat hectic and Cepeda felt nervous, she introduced the Dream Team and was and was proud to have gotten through the first step. The second meeting “went beautifully,” and fostered a lot of discussion and interaction between members. For the third meeting they planned a debate to mimic the senate.
“I really enjoyed just the people’s reactions and the fact that they’re supporting and I told them in the beginning, each member you’re in this club to support but also to be an advocate,” Cepeda said. “So by the end of the semester my goal is for each and every one of the members to advocate and keep spreading the awareness.”
The club, which meets every Monday at 8 p.m. in Student Union 414, currently has five members on E-board and 15 other members. Club Historian Krysten De Jesus, who keeps records of all the meetings, joined to give a voice to these undocumented students.
“I chose to join the Dream Team because I’ve watched my peers struggle for something that most of us, myself included, take for granted,” De Jesus said. “Dream Team has given me a chance to do something for not only the people I care about, but also for those who don’t have anyone to care about them.”
Club member Jada Young also sees the hardships faced by undocumented students and hopes to be part of the solution.
“I recognize a sense of solidarity in the struggle for equality that undocumented people are facing,” Young said. “It is senseless and should be unconstitutional for the US to continue the treatment of undocumented people that our government has been.”
To increase awareness, the New York Leadership Council will be helping with the club’s first major event on Oct. 29. Undocumented students will be telling their stories and Cepeda hopes it will help others see that their stories are similar to ours and the audience will “get a face to the bill.” She also wants to let any undocumented students on campus, who are ashamed or embarrassed, to know that there’s a club here for them.
Thus far, Cepeda is pleased with the response she has gotten about the club and feels confident about the future.
“I feel good because people come up to me and say ‘Yeah, I heard about the Dream Team’ or ‘What’s the Dream Team?’ I like that,” she said. “I just want more awareness and to spread, spread, spread because at the end of the day that’s what we need.”