After Years of Struggle, DREAM Act Activists Hail Monumental Victory for Immigrants Living in Fear

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HAVANA TIMES — President Obama’s executive order on deportations follows years of struggle by DREAM Act supporters who have braved the threat of deportation to fight for the rights of undocumented youth.

We’re joined by two guests who have taken that risk head on: Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who famously came out as an undocumented American in the pages of the New York Times, and DREAM Act activist Lorella Praeli, who came to the United States from Peru with her family to receive medical treatment as a young child.

AMY GOODMAN: “Nuestro Himno.” That’s “Our Hymn,” an interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Olga Tañón, Wyclef Jean and Carlos Ponce. The song was released April 28th, 2006, just three days before the historic immigrant marches on May Day of 2006. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, to talk more about President Obama’s announcement, we’re joined by two guests. Lorella Praeli is a member of the United We Dream National Coordinating Committee. As an undocumented American living in New Haven, Connecticut, she fought for passage of the state’s DREAM Act. The bill was signed into law last year, making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges. Praeli is a 2011 graduate of Quinnipiac University, which she attended on a scholarship.

AMY GOODMAN: Also with us is Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder of Define American. He famously came out of the shadows last June in the New York Times Magazine with his story called “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” His latest report is on the cover of this week’s TIME Magazine, “We Are Americans — Just Not Legally.” Jose Vargas himself is on the cover in a dramatic photograph, along with 35 other undocumented Americans TIME brought in from across the country, including Lorella.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jose Antonio Vargas, you will not benefit by President Obama’s decision. You, yourself, personally will not be able to get on one of those lines that Congressmember Gutiérrez described, because you’re 31.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yeah, I turned 31 in February, so I’m just about—I’m just a few months shy. You know, on Friday, I was joking to friends that it was the first day that I felt a little older, when I found out about the age limit. But, you know, I mean, I—in retrospect, if you think about the fact that, as Representative Gutiérrez was saying, we have now—going to be upwards of 800,000, you know, young people who are going to be able to, like, practice and actually use the skills that they have, the education that they have. I mean, I could not be any more thrilled by that.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorella, you will benefit, personally, not that you both won’t benefit in all different ways. Tell us how you ended up in the United States from Peru.

LORELLA PRAELI: I had a car accident when I was two and a half, which resulted in the amputation of my right leg. And my family and I sought treatment at Shriners Hospital. So we, for many years, spent time between Peru and Tampa, Florida, which is where the hospital was, or is. And then, when I was 10, my family decided to move to Connecticut. And that’s how I ended up here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, and they stayed in—what, overstaying a visa, originally? Or—

LORELLA PRAELI: Yeah, we had a visa, so we are visa overstayers, as people would call it. And I didn’t know I was undocumented until towards the end of my high school career and applying to colleges. I had always been told this narrative of “We’re here because of medical reasons. You’re here to get your treatment. And so, we’re fine.” And that narrative, it doesn’t suffice anymore when you’re applying to schools, and you need to fill out FAFSA, and you need a Social Security number. And that was kind of my introduction to what being undocumented really meant and to start to, I guess, at that moment, internalize what it meant to be undocumented, but, back then, feeling very isolated. And it wasn’t how I feel today. And I think, along with this kind of—this victory that has come on Friday, it’s also what it means to be undocumented now versus what it used to mean.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Did you—in terms of your expectations—you’ve been involved now in activism around the DREAM Act for quite a while—were you surprised by this decision on Friday?

LORELLA PRAELI: I think I was happy. I don’t—I mean, surprised in that I think it came quickly, but I think we had designed a very sophisticated strategy, like an internal and external strategy to make sure, and many people were working with us to make sure that this happened. So, I mean, I think happy, because one of my good friends, Myrna, was always saying, “We’re so used to losing,” right? Like, the DREAM Act comes up for a vote in 2007, it comes up for a vote in 2010, and, you know, people don’t move on it. You know, they don’t pushing enough for it. America is ready for this. America is ready for the DREAM Act. America is ready for comprehensive immigration reform. And I think Jose has done a lot to open up that conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Antonio Vargas, tell us your story, how you came to this country and eventually how you learned about your immigration status.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: So I came here—my mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me to live with her parents, my grandparents, in Mountain View, California.

AMY GOODMAN: You come from the Philippines?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: From the Philippines, when I was 12. So I got here. I thought everything was fine. And then, four years later, I went to the DMV to get my driver’s permit, and that’s when I went to the—you know, showed the woman the green card, and she turned around, she said it was fake. And she said I shouldn’t come back there again. I remember that. And then I went home and confronted my grandfather, and that’s when I found out.

Both of my grandparents are naturalized American citizens, so I just assumed everything was fine. And, you know, this was in—around the Pete Wilson era in California, right? And so, whenever you heard the word “illegal,” you always just thought “Mexican.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Wait a second. Like, I’m Filipino. Like, I’m not Mexican.” I actually thought the woman made mistake: because, you know, my name is Jose Antonio Vargas, maybe she thought I was Mexican, right? But then my grandfather said, you know, “Yep, what are you doing showing that to people? You’re not supposed to be here.”

And so, this was way before the DREAM Act. I graduated high school in 2000, a year before the DREAM Act was introduced. And it it wasn’t—it wasn’t because—if it weren’t for my high school principal, my high school superintendent, my teachers, who made sure that I got a scholarship, you know, to go to college, if it wasn’t for the kindness of American citizens, I would not have been able to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: But can you explain actually what they did, starting with your music teacher?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My music teacher, yeah. So my choir teacher, she was actually the first adult I told—I mean, the first kind of American citizen I told. And it was because she wanted the choir to go to Japan, and I had to tell her I couldn’t go to Japan because I didn’t have the right passport. And I remember—you know, Mrs. Denny is her name—she’s like, “Oh, we’ll get you the right passport. Like, this is not a problem.” “Mrs. Denny, you can’t get me the right passport.” “What do you mean?” And then, that’s when I kind of tell her this. And then, the next day, without even telling me about it, she changed the plan from going to Japan to Hawaii. And she didn’t tell anybody about it. She didn’t tell the principal. She didn’t tell anybody about it, because she didn’t think she was allowed to, you know? And then, come around senior year time when every kid was applying for school, everybody was wondering—because I was one of those kids that did everything in school—

AMY GOODMAN: You won the spelling bee.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I won the spelling bee. I edited the school paper.

AMY GOODMAN: You were an indefa—indefat—

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: “Indefatigable” was the word, yes. That was the word. But yeah, so I—as my principal says, you know, I was the dirty little secret that they were trying to figure out what to do with. And I can only imagine how many other secrets, you know, of undocumented students are all around the country right now figuring this out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then you go on later on to a career in journalism and the Washington Post.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How was it like at the Washington Post, which is obviously covering all kinds of immigration stories, and you’re there holding that secret?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I got there—I got there 2004. And, you know, the Washington Post building is about three blocks from the White House. And I remember when the immigration rallies, you know, were happening in 2006. And, you know, as a reporter, everybody wanted the big part of the story. And there’s not a lot of Latino-sounding names at the Washington Post. And I was just like, let me get away from that story as fast as I possibly could. I mean, I could not—I’m like, “Let me write about video games.” Like, I can’t write about this. I can’t write about it, right? I mean, that was the predicament that I found myself in.

And a year before that, I felt like the word “illegal” was tattooed to my forehead. And so, I ended up telling a senior editor at the Washington Post

AMY GOODMAN: Who did you tell?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Peter Perl, Peter Perl. It was Father’s Day yesterday; he was one of the people that I had to say Father’s Day—happy Father’s Day to on Facebook. I told him because I was really worried. You know, I mean, here I was, a journalist at the Washington Post, getting this job. I was—I felt—I kept thinking, “Wait up a second. I’m taking somebody else’s spot,” right? Kind of the guilt that I felt about it, and thinking that somebody was going to find out. “So, let me tell this guy.” I trusted him. I told him. And I expected him actually to report me. I thought the next thing was he was going to call Don Graham and just say, “All right, we’ve got to figure this out.” He said—we were sitting across the street from the White House at Lafayette Park, of all places, and he said, “This now our” — the first thing he said is: “You make so much more sense now,” because I guess I was so eager to just prove myself, you know? The second thing he said is: “This is now our shared problem. Don’t tell anybody else.” Can you imagine how many Peter Perls are out there around the country who are doing that exact same thing for undocumented people, just because, you know, they know that the system doesn’t make sense?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Under the Sensenbrenner bill, if it had passed, he would have been then arrested.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I would have been—exactly. And for us at Define American, this is really part of the story, is—how do we find the Mrs. Dennys and the Peter Perls out there? How do we let American people know that immigration is actually their issue?

AMY GOODMAN: Your underground railroad of support, as you describe it.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yes, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Then you go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for covering the Virginia Tech shooting.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yeah. I mean, I was part of the team that, you know, I—actually, I owe my success to Facebook, is how I actually ended up winning a part of that prize. But I remember just thinking to myself—you know, my grandmother called me because the Filipino press was like knocking on her door, and the first thing she said wasn’t “congratulations,” it was, you know, “What are you going to do when people find out?”

It was just—and then it got more and more surreal. My career just got—ended up being hired by Arianna Huffington, you know, moved to New York to go to the Huffington Post, ended up profiling Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker. And actually, it was—it was actually Zuckerberg—I told him this, actually—that in some ways snapped me out of this whole thing. I was—I remember taking him out for like a one-hour walk pretty near his office, you know, for the profile. And casually, he just turned to me and said, “Where are you from, Jose?”

I could have easily just said, “Mountain View,” right? Which is the truth, sort of. But I got to this point where, you know, I’ve always wanted to write for The New Yorker, since I was like a kid, and that was like a part of my dream. And here it was. Every dream that I ever had as a journalist was coming true. And I couldn’t go to Mexico to a friend’s wedding. I still couldn’t—the lies just kept getting bigger. And then, watching United We Dream and watching these—actually, these four activists from Miami walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., to fight for the DREAM Act, the Trail of Dreams, right? I felt like a coward, and I felt accountable. And that’s when I decided that, you know what? I got to go do this. My career could not keep going without kind of confronting this. So that’s why I decided to do it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lorella, the impact of all of the DREAMers, as you’re saying you found a community, you no longer felt isolated in that way—what kind of impact do you think the protests, the sit-ins have had, the people coming out, on this final decision of the Obama administration?

LORELLA PRAELI: A defining. You know, I almost feel like I don’t have words to describe it, because this country has changed so much since I got involved. So, I was one of those people watching everything, right, through the computer, and really battling. There is this—kind of this internal tension that comes about: “Do I come out? Do I not? And what does it mean if I don’t? Am I a coward if I don’t? But I’m scared of getting deported if I do.” But I saw that people were doing it, and I began to question why I wasn’t ready to take that step. And, you know, I went back to the underground railroad people, right? And I said, “This is something I need to do.” And, you know, I remember, at first, my professor, Sean Duffy, who’s played just a very important role in my life, my biggest advocate on and off campus, he said, “Don’t.” You know, like, I’m scared, I’m nervous. And then, as I kind of learned more and people were pushing me a little bit more, the people I had come out to, I decided, you know—and he was supporting me, and I had a whole community that was really standing behind me. And then I felt like I could take this step. But I think our stories, our faces, our actions, our conversations, the TIME piece, Jose coming out last year—last year or 2010?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, it was last year.

LORELLA PRAELI: Last year, right? Just one year, one year ago a few days ago. Gaby Pacheco and the DREAMers who walked from Florida to D.C., I think that’s all changed the narrative in this country. And they have shown us, through—just by living their lives, by dedicating themselves to this issue and to raising awareness about it and to having the uncomfortable conversations, right? It’s not easy to come out and say, “I’m undocumented,” because you’re still kind of really going through all the process inside about figuring out what this means for you, what the new identity will mean. That all paved the road to get to where we are.

AMY GOODMAN: So how did you do it?

LORELLA PRAELI: I did not know I was coming out the day I came out. And it was in a very public setting. So, I had just—had been invited to Kentucky for the United We Dream Network field planning meeting. Carlos Saavedra, the national coordinator, had said, “You can come, only if you promise to go back to Connecticut and do something.” And I was like, “OK, that sounds great. I’ll go.” And I went, and all of a sudden I saw 200 DREAMers meeting in one place, figuring out strategy. And I was like, “Gosh! How come I’ve” — you know. And at that place, I remember someone was doing—I always go back to this. Someone was doing YouTube videos about, you know, like, oh, “My name is blah blah blah, I’m undocumented,” and just like a very brief thing about oneself. And I did it. And then I remember I went inside, and I found him, and I said, “Actually, I need you to delete it. I need you to not put that up.”

And I think a month after that, we held an event in New Haven, Connecticut. The mayor kind of knew about my story, and they were announcing the New Haven Promise at Southern Connecticut State University. And they said—I got a call from the mayor’s office, and they said, “Hey, can you come to our press conference?” And I didn’t know what that meant. You know, “Can you come to our press conference?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. I’m going to be there. I’ll support this. This is great.” You know, New Haven Promise gives a full ride to students who meet certain criteria, regardless of status, to a state university. So I said, “This is great! Like, this is a small victory for the state of Connecticut.” And I got there, and they’re—you know, they’re going through the speakers, and they go, “OK, and you’ll go before this person and after this person and share your story.” And I was like, “OK.” And that was the moment for me. And I didn’t have anything prepared. I got up, and I said something like “I am done standing in the sidelines—on the sidelines.” And that was my coming out, very publicly. And that, I think, just changed my life for the better.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, interesting, Lorella, you met with Senator Marco Rubio, whose—


AMY GOODMAN: —really, this is the plan that he had put forward, that President Obama announced on Friday. What about that role and Mitt Romney saying—first thing he said, when he was asked about this on Friday, on the campaign trail in Ohio—he was talking about the economy—he said, “I’m not here to talk about that.” But then he said, “You know, this is just temporary, and the next president could reverse it,” he said. So, that left it to—since Obama probably wouldn’t reverse himself, it would probably be Mitt Romney who would be reversing it. But he is considering Marco Rubio as vice-presidential candidate. What did Marco Rubio say to you?

LORELLA PRAELI: When we were talking about his version of an act that would provide relief—because I really don’t want to call it the Marco Rubio DREAM Act. It’s not a DREAM Act. It’s not the bill that we’ve envisioned. But I think Marco Rubio did some to open up the political space to talk about this, to talk about it. And that is not giving him credit; that is just acknowledging that he was one of the players that kind of pushed for this to happen or that allowed us to push for this to happen. And I don’t know—we haven’t gone back. You know, we had a meeting with Senator Rubio Wednesday, and we found out late on Thursday that this was happening, and then this happened on Friday. So I don’t know what—how he’s feeling.

What I would say is that I would find it incredibly difficult, politically, for anyone to come into any future president of the United States, if we have not moved on the congressional front on this, to say, “I’m just going to take this away from people,” because I think we’ve shown America the contributions that we make. We’re American in every sense of the word, except for we’re not legal. And we’re going to be able to continue in a very different way to contribute with now being able to enter the job market. And it would be very difficult for someone to say, “I’m just going to take 800,000 people’s work permit.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jose Antonio, where does the movement go from here? Because, obviously, one, comprehensive immigration reform is not on the table with this Congress. We don’t know what will happen after November, but it’s going to continue to be a huge battle. How do these now 800,000 people who, on the one hand, now will have temporary legal status, but will also—part of their requirements is that they not get in trouble with the law—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —so they can’t get involved—or they risk, if they get involved in protests and getting arrested for further immigration reform, endangering their newfound status. Where does the movement go from here?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I actually think you’re—it was really interesting watching the Republican Party trip and circle their way around this since Friday, because I think what we’re now seeing is we have a new normal. We have a new normal when it comes to immigration reform in this country, right? That Mitt Romney is now talking about, “Oh, let’s look for a permanent solution.” This is the same Mitt Romney, just was just talking about self-deportation just like a month and a lifetime ago, right? I think now people understand that there is a new normal in this issue and that they need to talk about solutions. We have talked way far too long about the problem and not long enough about the solutions. And I think now, as Lorella was saying, there is such—this space. You know, I remember walking out of that TIME Magazine, after we closed the magazine, looking at that cover. Last year, when the New York Times ran my essay, the headline that they put on it was “Outlaw.” We went from “outlaw” to “We Are Americans — Just Not Legally” in a year. And that’s not me. That’s just the atmosphere. And that’s just because more and more people, like Lorella, like the DREAMers, will be coming out now. And not just that. People who support us will be coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, it’s so interesting, this “coming out” terminology—


AMY GOODMAN: —because, in fact, you also did just that in high school—

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: In high school.

AMY GOODMAN: —something you considered a much less minor revelation in terms of the repercussions, when—


AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you explain?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, I—after watching the Harvey Milk—the wonderful Harvey Milk documentary, when he talked about, you know, “If I die and every bullet should into my brain, let it crash through, like, closet door,” or something along those lines. And I was sitting there in my room 101, in Mountain View High School. And I raised my hand and told the class—hadn’t even told my girlfriend. She found out in third period. And that was my first coming out. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What did you say?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I told the class, “Blah blah blah blah blah, and I’m gay.” And I ran out. I ran out. Mrs. Paige Price, like, went running after me, because I went to the bathroom, because I was just—no one was out at school.

AMY GOODMAN: And your parents were—your grandparents were terrified. It would—

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My grandparents were terrified, because, you know, my grandfather’s plan was I would marry an American citizen and get a green card, you know, like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or something. That was the plan. And so, I went—that went out the window. But, to me, what’s most interesting about this is we have now—coming out has always been associated with the gay rights movement, right? Now you have a whole new generation of activists that took that word and took that phrase and that concept and look at it in a very life-affirming, positive way, right, and saying that they’re coming out. I think that’s—I think, by the way, that in itself is historic. And I think gay activists, especially the older gay activists that’s been fighting for this, should be very, very proud.

LORELLA PRAELI: So I think that we have to pause for a second and just acknowledge what kind of a victory this is. I think this will redefine the immigrant rights movement in this country, and I think we’re taking a lead now. You know, like now we’re—I think we’re unstoppable. And I think our job, our responsibility to Jose, to our community, to our parents, to the adults, is to continue that work, to look for permanent solutions, but I think to really empower the adult population in this country. So if there are 11.2 million undocumented Americans, you know, getting 11 million people to share their stories in a very public way, you know, and their allies and their friends. So, I remember I wrote a blog, and I said, “Before we talk about our failures and our successes, let’s talk about how we’re human and how people—people don’t even know that you’re undocumented, and they just have a very natural interaction.” So we’re not superhuman. You know, we’re not less than human. And I think that’s what America is beginning to really embrace. We’re not—you know, I don’t call myself an illegal immigrant. And I go into Latino communities and immigrant communities, and they say, “ilegal.” And I say, “Do you understand what you’re internalizing when you’re saying that?” And so, now we’re really kind of really pushing for “undocumented Americans,” Americans in every sense of the word. And I think America is ready for that. They’ve shown that on Friday. They show that today. They show it every day in the small interactions that don’t get covered.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us. Lorella Praeli, United We Dream, is headed off to Yale Law School today to do some training of people there, working with the Yale Law Clinic. And Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder of Define American, thanks so much for joining us.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Thanks so much for having us.


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