Critical to the movement’s success are undocumented lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender student leaders
As an athlete and honor student in high school, Jorge Gutierrez dreamed of one day becoming an English professor. He studied industriously by enrolling in Advance Placement (AP) courses to give him a competitive edge as he worked to get accepted into his dream school: UC Berkeley. But when it was time for Jorge to send in his college application, the conspicuous omission on the top of the form threatened his future’s dreams. Jorge doesn’t have a social security number.
“I didn’t know what it meant not to have papers, until I had to fill out the section of my college application where I was asked to provide my social security number,” said Jorge, an openly gay and undocumented student activist whose story is featured in the documentary film “Papers.” “From then on, no matter how good of a student I was, or how good of a community member I was, I was not treated equally.”
Much like the estimated 550,000 undocumented students in California, Jorge was brought to the US as a child without prior legal permission for permanent residency.
“We came to the United States from Mexico when I was ten,” Jorge said. “My mom wanted to offer her children more opportunities for our future, including the most important one, education.”
Raised in a single-parent household, Jorge was a child prodigy who always enjoyed reading and writing. Within two years of coming to the US, he learned to speak and write fluently in English. Because of his keen interest in his education, Jorge was admitted into UC Berkeley. However, because of his legal status, Jorge was not eligible to receive federal grants and financial aid. His family’s income, which depended solely on his mother, was not enough to help him cover the expensive tuition fees. Instead, Jorge decided to stay home in Orange County and cut his college expenses by attending the local state university, Cal State Fullerton.
“My college experience was difficult. I wasn’t able to be fully part of life on campus. I had to work two jobs to pay for school while I was enrolled as a full time student. I would spend three hours every day just traveling to and from school.”
Right before graduating, when Jorge began contemplating dropping out, he came across the Orange County Dream Team, a student activist group working to raise public awareness of the struggles undocumented students face. One of the group’s primary goals is to increase support for the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented students brought to the US as children who successfully complete two years of studies in higher education or who opt to serve in the military.
Currently, as the bill stands, there is sufficient support in the House of Representative for it to pass. Yet while President Obama has promised to sign the DREAM Act, the Senate leadership has not lined up the votes necessary to pass the bill.
“The Dream Act is my future,” says Jorge.
Without the possibility of gaining legal status, Jorge’s dream of becoming an English professor dwindles.
This week, as thousands of undocumented students similar to Jorge find themselves in legal limbo and face deportation, activists throughout the nation have intensified their efforts to ensure a positive outcome of the imminent vote on the DREAM Act, which could come as early as tomorrow.
In the nation’s capital, undocumented students lined up outside military recruitment offices offering to enlist in the armed forces. In Texas, a group of college students participating in a hunger strike demonstrated inside Senator Bailey Hutchinson’s (R-Texas) district office asking for her to support the bill while in Florida and other key states, a coalition of labor and immigrant rights groups have invested in TV ads urging constituents to voice their support for the measure by calling their Senators.
Back home in California, Equality California, the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocacy group, has launched the “Equality Beyond Borders” project, which focuses on increasing support for LGBT inclusive immigration reform among LGBT people. The project, a series of workshops set to take place through the state, is hosting its first event today, Thursday, December 2 in West Hollywood. The organization’s effort aims to forge new partnerships among community leaders within the LGBT and immigrant communities.
“I always feel that I am at the edge of two borders,” said Jorge in reference to his involvement with the immigrant rights and LGBT equality movement. “It feels like I am fighting two different struggles. Whenever I come across LGBT folk that don’t support immigrant rights, I feel marginalized and oppressed by my own community. Equally, when I am around people belonging to the immigrant community, I am saddened that some don’t support equal rights for LGBT people.”
Reyna Wences, a queer Latina and undocumented student activist in Chicago, shared similar concern.
“[When I first] became involved in activism in high school, I got involved with the LGBT movement, however, there was something that didn’t click there.”
Reyna, who was force to drop out of the University of Illinois, Chicago, because of the escalating costs and her ineligibility for federal financial aid, is an active member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, which seeks to create a safe space for undocumented youth. She explains that while 70 percent of the members involved with the student group are LGBT identified, mutual support between the LGBT and immigrant communities is not always evident.
“The immigrant rights movement has been a little unwelcoming sometimes, there is still some homophobia within the immigrant rights movement,” says Reyna. “I think we have to hold conversations about homophobia in the immigrant community, while at the same time have similar conversations with LGBT people about how they can support undocumented immigrant people.”
Reyna and Jorge explained that while a lot of the undocumented LGBT immigrant students are at the forefront of the DREAM Act movement, not all are “fortunate [to] have a very supportive family and [to be] part of a supportive youth group.” Many are afraid of coming out to their family and peers within the immigrant community.
“We [undocumented LGBT students] came out twice,” said Reyna. “First as LGBT and now as undocumented.”
Jorge Gutierrez is set to speak at Equality Beyond Border event tonight at 6:30 p.m. in West Hollywood. Those interested are highly encouraged to attend. Further details are available at http://www.eqcaevents.org/calendar/events/