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Immigration reform, law and a life of her own – a personal journey towards the American DREAM

June 29, 2013

By-line: Annette Birch

The article is published at The Capital Post,

The cell phone rang. A young woman got up, the phone plastered to her ear, alternating between English and Spanish as she spoke. Between calls, she chatted with other participants and greeted speakers, who all seemed to know her. Lizzette Arias was busy making sure that everything went as planned for Dream Project’s’ retreat about immigration reform for the non-profit’s volunteers from all around the country. For her, the issue is deeply personal. Until Dec. 10, she was in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. That’s when she got her papers thanks to a new White House initiative.

“I want to help other people who went through the same as I did,” Arias said and nodded, her earrings which matched her black blouse and jeans dangling from her ears. Since she graduated from college in 2011 she has worked part-time for Dream Project which helps undocumented Hispanic high school students.

It was not until her freshman year in high school that her parents told her why she could not do all the things her documented sister and friends took for granted. For Arias, growing up undocumented meant that she could not freely travel where she wanted or choose her college and dream job. But thanks to the Obama administration’s resolution of June 15, 2012, on deferred status for childhood arrivals, she is now one of the 453,589 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, who by March 14 has received a two-year work permit.

As the resolution’s one-year-anniversary approaches, Arias is working for the adoption of the bi-partisan version of the DREAM Act proposed in the Senate, which after five years on a conditional permit would give 11 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before they were 15 years old the possibility of a permanent residence permit and a path to citizenship.  Now that her dreams are coming true, she wants to help other undocumented Hispanic youths realize theirs.

“We have to keep pushing. The DREAM Act would give me and all others on deferred status a faster pathway to citizenship. It would mean that we could stay,” said Arias who also lobbies Congress for Dreamers of Virginia. However, the bill faces opposition from Republican conservatives in the Senate and has to pass the Republican dominated House where leading members like Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., intends to debate the immigration issues one by one.

When the resolution was announced, Arias was in California with Dream Summer, an internship program for immigrant rights leaders sponsored by the University of California Los Angeles. She was really scared of getting on the plane because she knew she had to show her Bolivian passport which did not contain the proper visa. But as she passed the security officers, they only took a passing glance at her passport and did not notice that the visa was missing. Then she was on the plane. She could hardly believe her luck. On her way back, they had announced the resolution and she was not afraid to go to the airport, because she knew she met the criteria for a work permit.

For the 24-year-old Bolivian-born woman, her new status has opened up a world of possibilities she thought she would never be able to have. When the administration began taking applications on August 15, she was one of the first to apply and on Dec. 10, she got her work permit. Everything began to fall into place. First, she got part time work as an assistant coordinator at the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing and then she got her driver’s license. She also wants to find a place of her own, something she could not do before without being afraid of being asked for a social security number and other legal documents she didn’t have. Finally, her new status has opened up for career opportunities she had given up.

“I wanted to go to law school in high school but gave it up, because I was illegal. I recently met a friend who is undocumented but graduated from law school. That gave me hope,” she said.

Even though she has been in the country since she was two months old, Arias did not find out that she was undocumented until her freshman year in high school. A day in early March, her dad had forgotten to turn the stove off in the kitchen; it caught fire and spread rapidly. Her mother hurried to the bedroom and told Arias and her sister to get out. They climbed out the window because the apartment was located on the basement floor. As her father tried to put the fire out in the kitchen, the lights fell on him, burning his face and shoulder before he and her mother finally got out. It took over a month for his burns to heal. Arias could not understand why he would not go to the emergency room until he told her that he could not go because without the proper papers, he risked being deported. That was when he told her that she did not have the proper papers either.

However, she still did not understand what being undocumented meant for her until her junior year in high school. One day when she was entering her information on-line to search for colleges, the search mechanism told her ‘William and Mary is your school and you can go there.’

“I looked at pictures and said oh my God I want to go there,” Arias said. But she could not afford to go even though she had straight A’s. As an undocumented immigrant she had to apply to a state university such as William and Mary as an international student, which was much more expensive than if she had applied as a U.S. citizen, and she could not get a scholarship from the school.

Yessina Arias, her younger sister by two years, felt unable to help her sister.

“She was very frustrated. It affected my whole family,” said Yessina Arias who unlike her sister is a U.S. citizen because she was born here and is now a senior at Arias’ dream school, William and Mary. She said Arias can be her own worst enemy when she is focused on being really pessimistic. “She focuses on the logical aspect and does not allow herself to dream.”

“In high school I was really depressed. The good thing was I focused a lot on studying. I did not want to talk to people,” Arias said.  Her mother became so upset that she lost weight, but even though Arias yelled at her parents about everything else, she never talked with them about her being undocumented. Instead she confided in Mindy Lemus who has been her friend since eighth grade and who, like her, played on the school’s field hockey team.

“She thought it was not just,” said Lemus.

Arias was encouraged to be ambitious in school by her mother who only got to the first year of high school back in Bolivia. Even though her parents had not enrolled Arias in school before third grade for fear of being discovered as undocumented, her mother would get angry if she came home with a B.

“You have to be a professional, don’t clean houses like me,” she would confront her in Spanish in a disappointed voice. “You need to try harder. Why did you not do your homework?”

Yet, being undocumented made going to college seem impossible for Arias, until one day her SAT preparation teacher, Duncan Brook, took her aside and told her that if she was more motivated, she could achieve her dreams.

“That moment really changed everything,” Arias said.

In June 2007, Arias graduated from Wakefield High School at the top of her class and was selected to be one of the three student speakers at graduation. As she looked out over the half-circle circus formation where 500 to 600 persons sat, students in their green caps and gowns and their parents, she could see her friends in the front and her parents and sister sitting to the right. It was quiet when she began to speak except for a few parents talking in the back, and the sound of cameras. She talked about the warrior spirit of the school, how it brought them to this point, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, would help them go out in the world and “Explore. Dream. Discover.”

“It was like when I was in orchestra when all the different sections came together in harmony,” said Arias, who plays the violin.

Arias had already been accepted to Morovian College, a private college in Pennsylvania, with a scholarship from the college covering tuition, room and board. She graduated two years ago with a major in history and sociology. But even with a college education, she went an entire year without any other job than the paid part-time internship at Dream Project.

Despite the fact that she now has a new job, she still devotes five to ten hours each week helping undocumented immigrants at Dream Project. An important part of her work is to help mentor three to five undocumented Hispanic high school students every Friday.

One of the high school students she has mentored is 18-year-old Guatemalan born Henry Lopez who she helped with essay writing for college applications. Like Arias he got his two-year work permit late 2011. A recent Friday he showed up proudly displaying the green and yellow school colors of his GMU sweater.

“So you decided on George Mason?” Arias asked Lopez, while everyone else was chatting and eating pizza.

“Yeah,” Lopez said with a big smile.

“Cool,” Arias said.

Linda Rodriguez, mentor coordinator for Dream Project, also attended the session. She has known Arias for more than two years and thinks Arias brings a lot to the meetings.

“She has changed all of their lives. Lizzette provides a lot of information for the students and support for them,” Rodriguez said.

Elyse Graziano, who participated in the session as part of an internship for a class at Georgetown University, agreed.

“Lizzette does a zillion things,” said Graziano.

Juggling her internship at Dream Project, lobbying for immigration reform, her job and figuring out what she is going to do next, does not leave Arias much free time. However, she still manages to see her close friends nearby and take trips to Pennsylvania to visit her friends from college. Sometimes, she goes down to the hockey field to shoot the puck around, but she misses the competitions.

Still, with immigration reform around the corner, Arias is too deeply involved in promoting and lobbying for the DREAM Act to have any time left to spare. Despite the opposition, she is very hopeful that the bill presented by the Senate will pass.

“The DREAM Act would be the golden ticket. We would finally be where we felt we were as Americans,” Arias said.


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