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Students Storm the Hill
Every day Sofia Campos commutes four hours by bus to attend her classes at UCLA, a journey that would take 40 minutes by car. "A lot of us do," she says, shrugging her shoulders. The "us" she's referring to are the fortunate few of the 65,000 undocumented high school graduates who are then able to go on to higher education.
At 17, when she was beginning the grueling college application process, Campos learned that her immigration status made her ineligible for any federal or state funding to finance her college education. She was devastated, but she considers herself lucky: Her parents were able to scrape together the funds by wiping out the family's savings. Campos is now a college sophomore.
Sofia Campos is one of thousands counting on the passage of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act. If passed, this bill, aptly referred to by its acronym, the DREAM Act, would make undocumented students eligible for citizenship within six years if they complete two to four years of higher education or military service.
This past weekend, the United States Student Association (USSA) hosted its 40th annual legislative conference. Students from colleges and universities around the country gathered in the capital for three days of meetings, trainings and brainstorming sessions that culminated in a day of lobbying congressional representatives in support of two pieces of legislation: the DREAM Act and Obama's 2010 higher education budget appropriations that would improve access to student loans.
Every year the conference helps students lobby on their own behalf, explains USSA Vice President Greg Cendana. But this year was a little different.
"When was the last time you felt so welcome here [in Washington]?" asked Jeff Blum of USAction. Gilberto Chacon, a veteran LegCon attendee and USSA board member, felt similarly. "The climate is very different," he said. "Even within the Capitol there seems to be more energy."
Washington has seen many crowds over the past few months, but none of them quite like this: A column of neatly-coiffed young people who could have passed for Hill staffers, clutched cups of coffee and chanted, "Ain't no power like the power of students 'cause the power of students don't stop!"
Student leaders all (one attendee from Oregon told me there were three candidates for student body president in her delegation alone), they represented a broad swath of states and interests, from shivering California student government representatives, to members of Muslim student associations and students lobbying for incarcerated youth.
Police officers smiled and waved them by, as did many of the federal employees who watched from windows as the group swept past the Department of Education.
Arriving on the Upper Senate Lawn, they were addressed by prominent Washington allies. "I believe it's a matter of justice," said Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), co-sponsor of the DREAM Act in the Senate. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), also a co-sponsor, thanked America's youth for their pivotal role in the last election. "You're here to redeem the promise from us who were successful last [November]," he told the crowd.
All the speakers recognized that, for many Americans, it's a struggle to simply reach college, regardless of citizenship status. Several students in attendance were beneficiaries of TRIO programs such as Upward Bound that provide sorely needed supplements to an ailing education system.
From there, it was a short walk up the Hill for lobby visits. I accompanied a UCLA delegation for what proved to be an inspiring visit.
From the moment we arrived it was clear we were among friends. There was Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a former labor lawyer, co-author of the DREAM Act and a vocal higher education advocate. We were also received by an education policy staffer, herself an alumna of USSA, who took extensive notes on the meeting and promised to follow up in the coming days. Intrigued by the student presence, staff members peered over their desks and some even came to perch on tables behind the students to hear their stories and ask questions.
Members of the UCLA delegation shared a story about how in response to student initiative, it has taken steps to declare the university a "safe zone" with regard to immigration status disclosure. "This is not just a Latino issue," stressed one student, emphasizing that it affects "all of us."
Higher education issues were not the only topics on the table. Gilberto Chacon gave a first-hand account of the Employee Free Choice Act's (EFCA) potential effects on a student community. During his first years in college he worked in the dining halls. "Around that time workers were trying to unionize because they were underpaid and the benefits were horrible." The result: Today there are fewer full-time workers and far more students, who've since taken on the more labor-intensive jobs while still only eligible for meager work-study wages.
"They're turning students into scabs!" a staffer exclaimed. Chacon nodded, saying, "We've even tried to unionize student workers." As yet, they haven't had luck.
With every assurance of Rep. Berman's support on issues from the DREAM Act to EFCA, the group left the office with an open invitation to come back anytime.
Upon emerging from the office, the group was silent for the first time since I'd met up with them, beaming at one another. "I wanted to stay and talk for hours on end," Gilberto said. "I think we helped re-inspire them."
While I'm not sure that all the delegations received as warm a welcome, it's clear that at least one group left Washington particularly satisfied. Not the type to stop at the first signs of success, members of the conference were busy planning the next steps.
"We created a caucus called La Coalition," explains Yannina Casillas. Teaming up with USSA students from across the country, Casillas plans to work across state lines to dispel myths about the new legislation.
When I asked if they'd thought about coming to Washington after graduation, Ron, a first-year astrophysics major shyly said that he hoped to eventually chair the Committee on Science and Technology.
As I walked down the Hill, I really hoped they would reach their goals. One of the chants from the morning's march surfaced in my mind: "This is what democracy looks like!"
Laura Dean is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. and currently an editorial intern at The Nation.