Erika Toledo Ruiz, 19, relaxes on a comfortable couch with her little sister, Gloria. While their dad naps after his midnight shift at McDonald's, a big flat-screen TV entertains the girls with blaring American cartoons. Gloria plays with the leftovers of a McFlurry as Erika gets ready to pick up her mom from her diner job.
Erika wants to work in the restaurant business as well. She graduated from Pueblo Magnet High School last year and is saving money to enter the culinary arts program at Pima Community College next year.
"When I get my diploma, I want to start business management so that I can get my own restaurant," Erika says. "That is my big dream. Hopefully, it comes true."
But there is one major obstacle: She does not have the right papers to stay in the United States legally.
On the other side of the country, New Yorker Sonia Guinansaca also lives an undocumented life. However, if the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act becomes law, Erika, Sonia and almost a million other undocumented young people in the United States could continue their education and follow their dreams.
Erika, born in Nogales, Sonora, moved to Tucson with her parents when she was 9. She feels half-Mexican and half-American. "I have been living here in America," she says, "but I still have my Mexican roots."
The last time she went to Mexico to visit family was four years ago. She enjoys holidays in her home country but does not want to live there again.
"I don't want to go back there, because I am already used to being here, and I have a whole new life here," Erika says.
Her situation is not unique. Her Pueblo High graduation class consisted of two dozen teenagers without papers, she says.
To help undocumented young immigrants like Erika stay in the United States and continue their education, Sens. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, introduced the DREAM Act in 2001. This act would make it possible for illegal immigrants to legalize their status if they arrived before the age of 16; lived in the United States for the past five years; and have a U.S. high school diploma. If they complete two years of post-secondary education or military service, they can become U.S. citizens.
The act would allow an estimated 726,000 undocumented young adults to immediately start a path toward U.S. citizenship, according to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute.
The act has been introduced numerous times since 2001. In September, it was introduced as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but did not pass. On Nov. 17, Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, introduced the act as a stand-alone bill during the lame-duck session of Congress.
Some advocates say the DREAM Act's best chance to pass is as part of comprehensive immigration-reform legislation. Jack Chin, a law professor at the UA who specializes in immigration law, disagrees.
"It is more likely to pass as a stand-alone act," he explains, "because this is the most sympathetic and compassionate portion of the undocumented population."
The legislation could make Erika's dream come true.
"We are not criminals; we just want to keep studying to be somebody in the future and help the country," she says.
As an active member of the "dreamer" community in Tucson, Erika went to Phoenix to advocate for the passage of the Defense Act when it was introduced in September. During the demonstration, a counter protester called Erika a "cockroach." He yelled at her to go back to Mexico.
"I felt so bad that day," she says.
But the hostility does not scare her away from advocating for other dreamers. This month, Erika will help campaign for the release of Araceli Torres-Ruiz, a young woman arrested while working at a Panda Express in Tucson in 2008. (See "The Panda Express Eleven," Nov. 6, 2008.) Torres-Ruiz was charged with working illegally and identity theft, and is now facing deportation, according to attorney Margo Cowan.
Cowan, who has been an immigration attorney for 40 years, represents approximately 50 dreamers each year. Cowan also meets with Tucson dreamers and their families at Pueblo High School each week to answer legal questions and to organize demonstrations and campaigns, such as the one for Torres-Ruiz's release.
In some previous campaigns, Cowan organized the dreamer community to flood the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with thousands of phone calls, faxes and e-mails. After two or three days, the department responded and granted deferred action—meaning the person is released and gets a work permit, according to Cowan.
But the campaign on behalf of Torres-Ruiz did not receive a reply.
On the other side of the United States, Sonia Guinansaca, 21, stares intensely at her computer screen in the cramped offices of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) on a chilly November evening. Even with her jacket on, Sonia shivers to stay warm in the cold room.
"I knew from the beginning that I was undocumented, but I was told, and I always believed, that something was going to work out," she says.
Sonia was born in Ecuador, but her parents moved to New York in search of a better life, leaving 8-month-old Sonia behind with her grandmother. When she was 5, her parents brought her to New York. She now lives in Harlem with her younger brother and sister, her parents, her grandparents, and aunts and uncles.
"Spanglish" is the language most commonly heard in their Harlem apartment. "We are a mixed family," Sonia says. "We have citizens, green-card holders."
But Sonia has no papers.
Sonia excelled in high school and in 2007 graduated fifth in a class of 250. She wanted to continue her education, but her advisers discouraged her.
"My college advisers said, 'You shouldn't apply to college, because you are going to open a can of worms,'" she says.
But she did apply. She now enthusiastically attends her classes at Hunter College, aiming for a bachelor's degree in Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino studies, and women and gender studies. She has two more semesters to finish her bachelor's degree.
Tuition has been a challenge every semester, but she receives a scholarship from the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women. A friend of Sonia's from Jamaica, who is also undocumented, received the scholarship as well.
"They overlooked the fact that we were undocumented. It was based on our grades and GPA," Sonia explains.
She also earns up to $280 a month from baby-sitting and occasionally covering her aunt's work shifts at a printing shop.
After graduating, Sonia wants to go to graduate school.
"My whole thing is that I want to be a professor in Latino studies with a focus on the undocumented experience," she says.
That may be easier said than done. Pursuing graduate school and paying tuition, while being unable to work, is nearly impossible. For Sonia, this challenge became reality when she had to turn down educational trips to Tennessee, Quebec and Japan, and saw her high school friends moving onto internships and better schools.
She does not resent it, she says.
"Eventually," she adds. "This is not the time. Maybe in the future I can go."
To open more doors for dreamers in the future, Sonia became an active member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) last year.
The NYSYLC is a nonprofit organization run by six core members, two staff members and more than 100 undocumented members operating on a $50,000 grant from the New York Foundation.
Their mission is to increase access to education for undocumented immigrants. Many of their activities are geared toward passage of the DREAM Act, according to core member Daniela Alulema. She is also undocumented, but after completing her bachelor's degree in accounting, she started a full-time administrative job.
Although the DREAM Act has "a slight chance of making it" in the current political climate, Alulema says, she believes that not passing the DREAM Act is morally wrong and does not make sense for the United States as a country.
"I am not a liability," Daniela says. "I am an asset."
Sonia has also been an active member of the NYSYLC. In July, she demonstrated at the U.S. Senate building in Washington, D.C., along with 21 undocumented students from other states, risking arrest and deportation.
"We knew what we were getting into," Sonia says. "That was the reason why we did it—to show the urgency. Regardless of whatever happens, we are doing this because we believe in the DREAM Act. By any means necessary, we were going to get the point across."
She was arrested for civil disobedience and trespassing, but the U.S. government dropped all charges.
The action increased awareness for dreamers.
"Capitol Hill went crazy that week," she says. "People were running around; there was a lot of media coverage. A lot of senators were mad that we did it; a lot of people were worried."
But the DREAM Act still did not pass—and not all immigrants are unhappy about that fact.
The nonprofit organization New Yorkers for Immigration Control and Enforcement (NY ICE) is "pro immigrants, but anti-illegals," according to president Joanna Marzullo.
Marzullo, whose parents arrived as legal immigrants from Nicaragua, says, "I am a born-and-raised New Yorker, and I am going to fight for my city. I don't think people should be coming illegally here."
The 400 members of NY ICE advocate for the enforcement of immigration law. Any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants is out of the question for them.
"The DREAM Act is a form of amnesty," Marzullo says. "It is playing 'Let's Make a Deal' with illegal alien students."
The argument that hundreds of thousands of children did not decide themselves to come to the United States illegally does not convince Marzullo.
"People who are illegal will give you 101 sob stories. They will give you a pity party in a paragraph," Marzullo says. "It is hard to gauge how much of their story is actually true."
At the end of the day, the U.S. has only a limited amount of resources, she says. "Illegal-alien students should not be allowed to compete with American students and legal immigrants for our resources."
Meanwhile, the fight for passage of the DREAM Act has continued for almost a decade.
For Sonia, it has been a disappointing process.
"Every year, you are advocating for the DREAM Act, and it doesn't pass," she says. "And then you have to go into classrooms and tell them, 'Sorry, not this year; let's go for next year.'"
Sonia's future is uncertain, but there is potential light at the end of the tunnel: On Independence Day, William Maye, an American, proposed to her, and they married two weeks later.
"Before I lose you, I want to marry you," he told her. "If something happens, before you get deported or something, I want to be like, 'That's my wife.'"
William could now petition for Sonia's citizenship. However, for now, they have decided not to start that process.
"Me marrying him does not solve the bigger issue," she says. "The bigger issue at hand is undocumented youth and a clear pathway for them to get their residency. Why should anybody's residency depend on marriage or falling in love?"
At the end of the day, dreamers across the nation share hope in the possible passage of the DREAM Act. This would bring Erika a step closer to running her own exquisite restaurant and Sonia closer to standing in front of classrooms teaching about the undocumented experience.