Hungering for a DREAM: students protest at Senator Feinstein’s office
At the high-traffic intersection of Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevards, a multicolored hodge-podge of tents and tarps line the sidewalk. Ten students from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas have chosen to make this spot of concrete their frontline of action.
On July 30, national alien-rights activist group The Dream Is Coming held a press conference outside Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office in West Los Angeles. The conference featured speakers from educational institutions around the Los Angeles County area in support of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act).
Volunteers and organizers with The Dream Is Coming began a 10-day hunger strike on July 21. They are protesting the Senate’s inaction regarding the DREAM Act, which was introduced in early 2009.
As of July 30, 10 activists are involved in the hunger strike with several more acting as support. Four of them have completed the full 10 days, whereas the remaining six have stepped in when other students left for health reasons. Those participating in the hunger strike only consume water.
“Choosing to do a hunger strike has symbolic meaning,” said Ernesto Zumaya, an organizer for The Dream Is Coming who assists those on the strike. “We’re starving for a dream, and we’re not leaving until we get our food – education.”
At the press conference, William Perez, Ph.D., professor at Claremont Graduate University, urged educators to consider the volunteers’ civil disobedience as evidence of their success as teachers of America’s youth.
“This is an impressive example of young adults embracing the ideals of democracy,” said Perez. “They have triggered political discussion nationally and, as educators, we have to be a part of this discussion.”
The activists plan to maintain their strike until an official statement of support and action is received from the Senator’s office. All supplies have been donated or paid for by voluntary donation.
The DREAM Act was introduced to the Senate and House of Representatives in 2009, although it has been in development since 2001. The Act gives a defined path to citizenship for undocumented alien minors who have not been born in the United States.
Sen. Feinstein, who was unavailable for comment, is a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act. However, The Dream Is Coming activists feel that a message should be sent to every representative, regardless of official support or not.
“She is our representative here in Los Angeles,” said Zumaya. “We’re not targeting her specifically. We want her to be a champion of the DREAM act and tell the other senators to support it.”
Citizenship would only be extended to those that have resided in the U.S. for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment, upheld good moral character and have arrived in the U.S. as a minor. Once these qualifications are met, undocumented residents would receive a six-year temporary residency status in order to pursue higher education or military service with an end goal of citizenship.
Jorge Gutierrez has been fasting for the full ten days. He is a 26 year old undocumented student who has navigated the California State University system to successfully obtain his bachelor’s degree in English, but he maintains that it was far from easy.
Although his aunt petitioned for his legal status in 1996, he still hasn’t been able to obtain a social security number or any documents to identify his residency. Without federal aid or access to the majority of scholarships available, Gutierrez had to work two jobs without a work permit to pay for tuition. Now, his bachelor’s degree in English is rendered useless as he still has not received a work permit.
“I am just one of thousands that go through this same situation,” he said. “The only options left are civil disobedience.”
Although Eric Esparragoza hadn’t regularly participated with The Dream Is Coming, as soon as he heard about the hunger strike he knew he had to participate. Because of his undocumented status, he couldn’t afford the colleges that accepted his applications. He felt compelled to act in defense of his future.
“I didn’t have to think about it,” he said. “It’s what I have to do to help the cause. We want to contribute to the system and country here in America.”
“We’re not going to give up easily,” he added. “To me, that’s what it means to be American.”