Student’s movement lobbies for DREAM Act
Friday, May 11, 2012
Lucy, his Jack Russell terrier, was barking. His mom was crying. His dad was crying.
Jorge Steven Acuña’s dad came into his room as Acuña was just waking up to get ready for school. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” his dad said, failing to hold back tears.
There were 11 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials outside, waiting to take them all away. His dad was under arrest, and they told Acuña they needed to fingerprint him and his mom, promising they would be back home that night.
Acuña quickly Googled what was happening and learned he and his family were about to be detained.
He didn’t explain to his mom — he didn’t want to scare her.
That Wednesday two months ago, everything changed. It was also the start of a movement he could have never predicted.
Acuña, 19, is a Montgomery College student who lives in Germantown. A life sciences major, he hopes to transfer to this university to study chemical engineering and eventually medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
He and his parents are undocumented immigrants.
Acuña’s parents left their home in Bogota when he was 8 years old in order to escape the armed revolutionary forces in the country — revolutionaries who shot at Acuña’s house when he was young, he said. His parents told him they were going on vacation to America. And for a while, it was a vacation. They went to the beach and visited New York. They only brought their clothes. But soon after, they told Acuña the family wasn’t going back to Colombia, and he was more than OK with having a new home, he said.
“I kind of fell in love with the country,” Acuña said.
The family settled in Germantown, where Acuña attended public schools and grew up playing soccer, volleyball and swimming and diving, as well as acting in plays at his church. Most of the family’s friends and neighbors didn’t know they were undocumented immigrants, but Acuña said he never faced hostility or discrimination because of his race or national origin.
In 2005, after receiving driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, Acuña said the family filed for political asylum, reasoning that they left Colombia fearing for their safety. However, the family’s lawyer was taken off the case, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement served them deportation orders.
Acuña said his family appealed the orders and traveled to Miami every other weekend to consult lawyers more experienced in immigration policy, to no avail. In March, they received the final deportation notice.
Acuña said he tried to distract himself with schoolwork as his 18th birthday, and the threat of deportation, loomed closer.
“I lived a pretty normal life,” he said. “I just never really felt like it was going to happen.”
But on that Wednesday morning, reality caught up with him.
The Acuñas were held in a prison on the Eastern Shore for six days, four of which Acuña and his father spent in a maximum-security cell together.
“It was just like, ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’” Acuña said. “It was scary. It’s prison.”
Acuña said his friends came to visit the first night he was there. They were all crying and told him they would sell his things so he and his family would have some money when they returned to Colombia.
“I kind of didn’t see any hope in them,” Acuña said. “I was kind of ready to just leave, too, because I thought I didn’t have any hope.”
However, they turned around quickly. When a friend visited that Saturday, he told Acuña, “We’re starting something big. I don’t want you to get excited, but it’s big.”
Acuña said he thought “something big” was probably a Facebook page.
Three days later, Acuña and his family were out of prison.
Acuña said his friends brought documents to prison for him to sign and got him legal support from CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit organization that fights for immigrant rights.
But what started as a family affair quickly became a movement for student rights and youth political activism, called Justice for Students in America — a convenient acronym matching Acuña’s initials.
Within a few days, his friends garnered thousands of signatures on a petition for his release and a 500-person rally greeted Acuña’s family in Rockville the day after their release, he said.
“JSA really was a grassroots community movement which began with a reason, which was when Jorge and his family were taken, the community felt the loss of one of their members,” said Rommel Sandino, CASA de Maryland’s youth organizer. “In this case, it really was a community that was in support and backing this family.”
Acuña said once he was home, he was ready to stand up for students’ rights, no matter their documentation.
“We just want the right to have an education,” he said.
Sebastian Roa, Acuña’s cousin and a sophomore communication and government and politics major at this university, said JSA aims to empower youth to engage in politics and support causes such as the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented students with in-state tuition if they met certain criteria, including completing 60 credits at a community college.
“We think that by getting the youth in politics … we can pressure politicians to pay attention to educational issues,” Roa said.
However, after successfully leading a petition drive to put the DREAM Act on the referendum, Republican state Del. Patrick McDonough (Baltimore and Harford) said he is confident voters will overturn the act in November’s election.
“It’s not really a DREAM Act — it’s a state-financed benefit for people who are here illegally,” McDonough said. “I think they all should be deported as soon as possible because that’s what the law is … I don’t see any reason why they should get an exception from the law.”
Upon their release from prison, Acuña and his parents were granted a one-year reprieve during which they are safe from deportation. Acuña said he does not know what will happen next, and he does not want to apply to this university until he knows his plans.
In the meantime, he and his friends are lobbying in Annapolis and registering students to vote. Roaplans to launch a university chapter of JSA, and the group is working to register as a state nonprofit. But for Acuña, the next 300-some days will keep counting down.
They’ll likely be filled with more events and engagements, like when he spoke in front of the U.S. Supreme Court a few weeks ago, or when he was invited to the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House (but didn’t go). While they might provide a distraction, nothing will give him certainty.
“He’s an American at heart,” Roa said, “but on paper, he’s not.”