Maria Jose Guzman dreams of traveling all over the world, diving into other cultures while working for an international brand such as Coca-Cola or Gucci.
Yet, the 19-year-old Lehman College freshman is not just a dreamer, she’s an actual Dreamer — the child of undocumented parents who brought her to the United States illegally at a young age. While lawmakers in the past have tried to find a way to help people like Guzman find a path to legality — if not outright citizenship — the Trump administration is threatening to take that all away.
And it’s because of that more than 100 people — activists, religious and community leaders, elected officials — led by Bend the Arc Jewish Action Riverdale Task Force bundled up against the elements, standing their icy ground outside U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel’s office. Their goal? Urge Congress to pass a clean DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act that would give such options to people like Guzman.
Members of the New York Police Department’s 50th Precinct stood watch as the crowd chanted, “Let my people stay” while holding signs reading “Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbor” and “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” from inside the metal barricades. Several patrol cars sat parked on the street, blue and red lights flashing, as passersby toting grocery bags struggled past the cramped sidewalk.
Those who showed up at last Thursday’s rally weren’t alone. More than 20 rallies formed across the country during a week that saw minority leader Nancy Pelosi hold the House floor for more than eight hours protesting lack of protection for young undocumented immigrants.
“We’re here to say to our politicians that they don’t have a lot of time, and we can’t allow the Dreamers to continue to live with this weight on their hands, not knowing what their legal status is,” said Daniel Guenzburger of the local Bend the Arc’s steering committee. “Congressman Engel has been a supporter of Dreamers, but we want him to do what he has done on the past two spending resolutions and to vote ‘no’ on funding the government until our government does something to protect the rights of Dreamers.”
Tereza Lee, the “original Dreamer” born in Brazil to Korean parents who inspired U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to introduce the DREAM Act in 2001, told her story of coming to the United States as a child, and the trials of being undocumented.
An urgent sense of solidarity was palpable.
“We as Jews were immigrants ourselves and can really identify with today’s Dreamers,” said Sue Dodell, another Bend the Arc member. “Virtually all Jewish people have parents or grandparents who came from Europe or elsewhere fairly recently to the U.S., and in some cases were not documented.”
Guzman was the first person in her family to graduate high school and attend college. She was born in Mexico, but came to the United States before her first birthday.
“So when I hear these racial commentaries saying, ‘Go back to your home country,’” Guzman said, “the thing is, the United States of America is the only place I’ve known as home.
“Throughout my time, I knew my journey wasn’t going to be easy, because I knew from the start that being undocumented, it has its restrictions, and I could see that from my parents. How hard they worked, staying past hours of their jobs, coming home late, noticing them exhausted. That really impacted me.”
That and the broader, urgent issue of immigration drove Guzman to join the fight for the DREAM Act.
“This is a situation that isn’t only about me,” she said. “It’s about everyone. I know that the media portrays immigration as a Latino issue, but more specifically, a Mexican issue. And that is completely wrong, because there are people who immigrate from various other countries.”
As Guzman sees it, she — along with her fellow Dreamers and DREAM Act supporters — have a responsibility not only to push for legislation, but also to enlighten.
“Once you get to hear these stories about everyone, how they came here, what they were feeling, it feels very comforting to me,” Guzman said. “Growing up in Westchester — I live in Yonkers — I knew there was an immigrant community out there who was undocumented, but there weren’t any children that were like me. I didn’t know anyone.”
It wasn’t until recently, in the course of applying to college, that she realized being undocumented made her ineligible for federal student financial aid.
“It painted a whole new world for me,” Guzman said. “I needed to see what is the next step that I need to do. And so by learning about different organizations and scholarships, I was actually able to find a whole group of people who were exactly like me, who knew what the struggles were, who were basically facing the same things — how we’ve been attacked by the president of the United States, and being in fear of deportation due to DACA being suspended.”
Trump isn’t expected to extend a March 5 deadline for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That means legal protection and work permits instituted during the Obama administration will begin to expire for Dreamers, opening them up for imprisonment and deportation.
Engel already voted four times against continuing resolutions that fail to support DACA Dreamers, said Bill Weitz, the congressman’s chief of staff, and Engel voted against the latest spending bill that ended a second federal government shutdown last week.
“Just as many of us suspected when the last continuing resolution passed two weeks ago, the GOP leadership simply cannot be trusted to do what’s right for the country, and more specifically for our Dreamers,” Engel said in a statement, read by Weitz at the rally. “Their effort or lack thereof has been shameful, as has their willingness to pit vital American interests against each other during this negotiation process.
“Americans shouldn’t have to choose between helping DACA recipients or funding community health centers. We shouldn’t have to choose between giving young children health care or legal status. What the GOP has done with this bill is not right, and their cynical ploy continues to keep 800,000 DACA recipients twisting in the wind.”
As her parents inspired her to take up the fight for the DREAM Act, Guzman hopes her decision to lend her voice to that collective struggle will give others courage to join in.
“Mainly I’m fighting for myself and my family, and those who just fear of being deported, those who want to see a better legal system toward immigration,” Guzman said. “That’s basically my purpose and my story of what I want people to see — not as pity, but as someone who is able to come out of the dark and be able to represent others.”