Sabbath honors dreams of young immigrants

9/16/2011

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Sept. 16, 2011

Mercedes Gonzalez is one of 2 million young people who would be eligible to apply for citizenship if the DREAM Act becomes law. UMNS photos courtesy of Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Mercedes wants to be a nurse or a doctor. Michael wants to join the U.S. Marine Corps. Juan wants to be an entrepreneur and community leader. Ivan wants to be a military doctor and a cancer researcher. Lorella wants to be a lawyer and fight for social justice. Gaby wants to be a teacher.

The one thing all these recent high school graduates have in common is that it is not possible for their dreams to come true in the United States.

They are a few of the more than 2 million young people who were brought to this country by their families when they were under 16 years old. Even though they grew up in the United States and have no ties to the countries of their birth, they are not U.S. citizens.

United Methodist agencies, churches and individuals are participating in DREAM Sabbath, a national campaign to dedicate time during regular weekly worship services between Sept. 16 and Oct. 9. The purpose is to inform and advocate for passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which gives undocumented students a chance to earn legal status.

DREAMers, as the students have become known, will speak to congregations and ask them to contact their lawmakers to support the bill, opening a portal for them to go to school, join the military, and become doctors, lawyers, pastors or other productive members of society.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops Committee on Immigration, the Interagency Immigration Task Force and the Board of Church and Society encourage congregations to observe a DREAM Sabbath.

Marchers show their support for education over deportation.

Mercedes’ dream

One of those dreamers is 18-year-old Mercedes Gonzalez. Gonzalez was 11 years old when her family left Mexico and came to Nashville, Tenn., to flee violence and threats of kidnapping. Mercedes recently graduated from high school with honors.

Days before her high school graduation, a police officer pulled her over for driving fewer than 10 miles over the speed limit. She had no driver’s license. She was arrested, put in handcuffs and taken to jail for three days. During that time, she was told repeatedly she would never see her family again, that she would not graduate from high school and would have no opportunity to pursue her dreams.

Kathryn Esquivel is a member of Belmont United Methodist Church and director of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a United Methodist program that offers free legal services to immigrants. Esquivel was in the courtroom the day Mercedes and her family were struggling to understand what to do. Esquivel referred the family to Adrienne Schlichtemier, regional attorney for the Tennessee JFON program.

They were able to get Gonzalez out of jail, but she is now in legal proceedings to be deported to Mexico, a country where she knows no one, has no family and has not lived for seven years.

Schlichtemier said the White House recently announced that they were reconsidering cases like Mercedes' and instead concentrating on criminals and those who have committed multiple breeches of immigration law.

“I really thought I was going to be put on a bus and leave the country,” Mercedes said. She said even though she is now in peril because of the decision her parents made to come to the United States, she has no regrets.

“Even though my family traveled here not the right way, I’m still thankful for them because they didn’t leave me alone there. I’m really thankful to them.”

Gonzalez didn’t realize how limited her choices were until she graduated from high school and started thinking about college.

“I realized that papers were so important when my dad went to my high school. Everybody was talking about college, and I asked my teachers, ‘What do you need? What are the requirements to go to college?’ That’s when I found out I wasn’t going to have the same opportunity, that they were requiring your green card or your Social Security number. And I don’t have that.”

Teachers and religious leaders have written letters pleading with the Immigration Customs Enforcement not to deport Mercedes.

“Such a simple thing as speeding should not cost this young woman everything — her education, her future, her expectation of living up to the very lessons we have taught her in our public school system,” said Jessie Garcia Van De Grief, a dean at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

Dreaming of a future

The DREAM Act would provide a path to legalize eligible undocumented youth and young adults to become U.S. citizens. There are strict regulations, and it does not provide permanent legal status. It allows individuals to apply for legal status on a conditional basis if they are under 35, arrived in the country before age 16, have lived there for at least the last five years and have obtained a high school diploma or the equivalent.

The conditional basis would be removed in six years if they successfully complete at least two years of post-secondary education or military service and maintain a good moral character during that time.

A filibuster late last year prevented the DREAM Act from going to the U.S. Senate floor for a vote, effectively killing the legislation for that congressional session. The House of Representatives had already approved the bill in a 216-198 vote.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime champion of the legislation, reintroduced the bill in May 2011.

Mercedes Gonzalez graduated with honors from Overton High School in Nashville, Tenn. A web-only photo.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, United We Stand, Durbin and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are organizing the DREAM Sabbath campaign. Several United Methodist churches and organizations are planning special worship services. Track the DREAM Sabbath events here.

A DREAM Sabbath Toolkit, available for congregations, includes:

  • Stories of DREAM Act students
  • Sermon stories or sermon starters
  • Bulletin inserts
  • Myths and facts sheets
  • DREAM Act and immigration education materials
  • Theological reflections
  • Links to online videos from faith leaders

Many dreams are depending on the passage of this bill, Gonzalez said.

“I feel like this is my home. Nashville, Tenn., is my home because my friends are here. My family is here. I want my future to be here. I want to be a citizen.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.