LAS VEGAS -- On a recent afternoon in Las Vegas, more than 100 students from across the Southwest marched to an intersection just blocks from the Stratosphere casino. By forming a ring – two-abreast – they blocked the street, chanting: "Education, not deportation!"
They were there to show support for the Dream Act, a federal bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants if they attend college or join the military.
A frustrated driver leaned heavily on his horn as the students circled the intersection, obstructing his path. When traffic came to a stop, the students erupted in cheers and applause. And as quickly as that, they left the intersection.
That’s because this time, their bold action was just a rehearsal. The young activists were learning about civil disobedience to help them advance their campaign in new, more dramatic ways.
The regional training was put on by United We Dream, a national organization dedicated to promoting access to higher education for immigrants. The goal was to energize student activists to keep the Dream Act alive. The campaign suffered a setback last December when the bill failed in the lame duck session of Congress. In the aftermath of that defeat, undocumented student activists around the country were crushed.
“A lot of the youth got out of the room, they were just crying. They didn't know really what to do,” said Erika Andiola, 24. She was one of many student activists who traveled to Washington, D.C. to see the vote.
It was also a personal blow for Andiola, who came from Mexico illegally when she was 11. She graduated from Arizona State University with honors two years ago.
But as an undocumented immigrant, she had to forfeit the public scholarships she won, and she wasn't eligible for financial aid. Ultimately, she got a private scholarship. Yet her degree is virtually worthless. Without the Dream Act, no one can legally hire her.
The Dream Act was re-introduced this June, but no one expects the legislation to pass in this Congress. The bill’s opponents have called it an unfair reward for breaking the nation’s immigration laws that would incentivize more illegal immigration.
So these young activists face a glaring obstacle. They have to energize a broader base at a time when there is no federal solution within reach.
But Andiola said her career prospects are so dim as an undocumented immigrant that doing the slow work of grassroots organizing for long-term change is her best option.
“I want to go to law school. So I start looking for law schools that are cheaper or that I'll be able to pay in-state tuition, but it’s really hard,” Andiola said. “It is almost impossible. So you kind of go back to: ‘OK–I have to keep organizing.’ ”
So on a July weekend, Andiola helped lead the United We Dream training out of a Las Vegas union hall. It drew local college and high school students, as well as activists from campuses in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
In a lobbying drill, students practiced trying to sway unsupportive members of Congress.
Justino Mora, a lanky 22-year old UCLA student, played the role of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky.
“So your responsibility is to convince me to put the Dream Act forward,” Mora told a cluster of fellow students.
Reyna Montoya, a senior at Arizona State University, took a turn.
“70 percent of the American society supports the Dream Act,” Montoya said. “We have to be conscious about the economic benefits that it’s going to bring.”
The petite 20-year old had experience lobbying in D.C. before.
“And as dreamers, as undocumented youth, they just want an opportunity,” Montoya continued. “And they are asking it to work for it, they don't want anything for free.”
But Mora, channeling McConnell, wasn’t convinced.
“This Dream Act is not in my priority list,” Mora told Montoya. “We need to create jobs in the U.S.”
That political reality is why these young activists are now broadening their focus.
They are working on local issues, like opposing rising tuition costs. They are learning how to defend each other from deportation. And to raise the profile of their campaign, they are coming out publicly about their illegal immigration status, despite the potential consequences.
“I run the risk every day anyways,” Andiola said. “If I walk out of my house I could get deported anyway, so I might as well do it for the right reason.”
Andiola took her biggest risk last summer. She and 20 others were arrested at a sit-in on Capitol Hill, and were booked into jail. But when no one in the group was deported, it made others feel brave.
“So I think a lot of them do get a little bit more courage,” Andiola said. “If not to get arrested, at least to come out and say they are undocumented, you know, come out of the shadows.”