Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Kansas Got a Co-Sponsor

By: Will Suarez

It was said it could not be done in a conservative state like Kansas. The odds were against the Kansas/Missouri DREAM Alliance (KSMODA) a.k.a. Quesmoda. It was believed that Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore, who resides in a very conservative district, would not co-sponsor the much needed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

My parents always taught me that everything is possible if one believes in God. I decided to place all my faith in God so he could help me brake through all the barriers I would encounter.

After the DREAM field meeting in Minneapolis, I was ready to give my heart and soul to this cause. Had Yahaira not pushed me into coming along with her to Minneapolis, I would not have met those who inspired me to stand strong when facing adversity. The day I came back from Minneapolis, I found a letter in my room. It was from the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission (KHLAAC). I opened it to find a certificate appointing me as the technical advisor of youth outreach for the commission. This was a blessing and I knew I was being given the opportunity to advocate on behalf of my friends.

That same week, I met with Dr. Calaway, the President of my college, along with my friend Ricardo to ask him to write a letter in support of the DREAM Act. After we explained to him how students were being affected by the broken immigration system and showed him who supported the DREAM Act, he did not hesitate to write our Kansas legislators a letter asking them to co-sponsor this bill.

A few days later, I received a message through facebook from an old friend asking me to help her start a club like the one I had started at my school (The Latinos United Now and Always club). I was also contacted by Erin Fleming (a.k.a. DREAM ninja) letting me know she was also a DREAM activist and wanted to get the Chancellor of the University of Kansas to write a letter in support of the DREAM Act. After meeting Myrna Orozco, Erin Fleming, Brenna Daldorph and getting reacquainted with Jackie Saavedra, I knew beautiful things were going to come our way. They all decided to join the KS/MO DREAM Alliance. I knew they were destined for greatness the moment I met them. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that we had all met in February. This was meant to be.

While I have no experience lobbying, I knew I could not let my insecurities deter me from getting my Congressman on board. I decided to travel to Washington D.C. a few days before the march on the 21st to let Congressman Moore that it was imperative that we had his support for the DREAM Act. With the donations of Carlos Gomez, Father Mark, Miguel Morales, my grandparents, and all my other friends, I was able to board a plane to the capital. I bought my ticket to D.C. without knowing where I would stay. I didn’t even know the exact location of where I was suppose to meet the Legislative Director with whom I had scheduled an appointment days earlier. I was dropped off at the White House and I walked into the White House visitor’s center to find out that I was sixteen blocks away from the House Office Building with fifteen minutes before my meeting. I remember running through the wide streets of D.C., taking enough time to breathe at the stoplights. I walked into the meeting sweating, but ready to read the Legislative Director a story. I read her a heartbreaking story and handed her petitions with over 200 signatures. I could feel she was touched by the story. She asked me if she could keep the story and I handed it to her. She promised to deliver my message to Congressman Moore.

Weeks after my meeting with my Congressman’s Legislative Director, I had not heard back from his office. When I realized that Congressman Moore was coming back to my district during his recess, I knew I could not let this opportunity go. I had been trying to talk to him for months and I was constantly told by staffers that he was too busy to meet with me.

I came home one night after a KSMODA meeting the last week of March frustrated with myself. I knew the odds were stacked against me. I had no lobbying experience, my Congressman is a conservative Democrat and it seemed impossible to deliver my message of urgency to him. I knew he is a man with a good heart because I had met him before.
I knew hundreds of thousands of students were counting on me to do my part. I knew I could do anything with my friends from KS/MO DREAM Alliance. I also knew I counted with the support of my friends from all over the U.S. I was inspired by my friends in Chicago. Their Coming Out action instilled in me courage. I decided it was time for me to sacrifice myself like all my friends were doing. How can I stand on the sidelines, waiting patiently, when there were students walking from Miami to D.C.? Is unbearable to even think how much injustices my friends, family and I have put up with under this broken immigration system.

I decided I would starve for my dreams and that of my friends. I was willing to fast in front of my Congressman’s office as a symbolic gesture of the suffering students face because of their immigration status. All I wanted is for him to acknowledge the urgency of enacting the DREAM Act. I wanted to talk to him.

As soon as I pitched the idea to my team, they backed me up. Many were willing to fast with me. It broke my heart to know that my friends were willing to go to such extremes along with me. People need to understand that life is unbearable without the DREAM Act. Everyone in the Alliance played their part by letting others know what we were planning and contacting the media. We knew we could endure and accomplish our goal of talking to Congressman Moore about the plight of undocumented students.

A week prior to our “Fasting for Our DREAMs” action, I was given the opportunity to speak to Hispanic leaders as technical advisor of the Kansas Hispanic and Latino Affairs Commission during the Kansas Day on the Hill. I stood behind the podium worrying how they would take my message. After I shared with them the story of Daniela, an undocumented student who had lost her mother to cancer and was now left undocumented, I could see people getting teary eyed. At that instant, I remember those whom I had met in Minneapolis. I vividly remembered some of them crying when they told their stories. I told the crowd that I refuse to see another class of outstanding students not be able to realize their dreams. I do not want to see other students go through what I went through when I graduated high school. I will not allow society to close the doors on anyone. As I continued with my speech, I broke down. I told everyone in that room, that I would not tolerate this inhumanity by starving for the DREAM Act. I told them that there is nothing more American than to fight for one’s rights and my friends and I were doing just that. Everyone in that room stood up to clap not for me, but for the valiant efforts of DREAM activists across the nation.

The day after this event, I called my Congressman’s office to continue trying to set up an appointment with him and I was told that Congressman Moore wanted to discuss the DREAM Act with me. I was thrilled. My friends helped me spread the word about the rally that we were planning outside his office to show him the need in Kansas and all over the U.S. for this legislation.

The night before my meeting with Congressman Moore, I prepared a folder with letters from the American Council on Education, the President of Stanford, a letter from the President of the largest undergraduate institution in Kansas, a letter from the former superintendent of the Kansas City Kansas school district, stories of undocumented students and other information about the DREAM Act. I also received a phone call that same night from Cecilia, one of the KHLAAC commissioners, to invite me to dinner with her and her husband. As I was eating my flan, the last meal I would have before my fasting, Cecilia and her husband discussed with me their concerns. They gave me advised and what truly inspired me is that they told me that they wanted me to be their daughter’s role model. They purposely asked me all the details about the DREAM Act to prepare me for my meeting.

The morning of the meeting, I put on my black suit. I placed a white rosary and my Kansas State champion chess medal in my right pocket. I carried the rosary to remind me that it is in my faith that I must stand up to injustices and to be reminded that God was with me. I carried my medal to be reminded what I was capable of. This medal reminded me that I overcame great odds with determination. It symbolized that hard work and perseverance pays off. Yahaira and I met outside Congressman Moore’s office a few minutes before the meeting. As soon as I looked at her smile, I knew together we would overcome the odds.

We walked into the office and sat down on a couch anxiously waiting to see Congressman Moore, someone who I respect and admire. Dennis Moore, a man of great stature, happily greeted us and shook our hands. I sat on the chair straight across from where he was sitting, while Yahaira sat to my left. “Talk to me Will,” said Congressman Moore. I began by introducing myself, letting him know a little bit about my background and then I began telling him how students were being affected by their lack of documentation. I handed him the folder I had prepared the night before. He opened the folder and saw an envelope inside. I asked him to open the letter the President of my college, Dr. Calaway, had written for him asking him to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. He opened the letter and read it. Yahaira shared with him her frustrations. She broke down and I could see my Congressman get teary eyed. He empathized with our struggles. He reiterated that he supported the DREAM Act, that he had voted for the DREAM Act in the past and that he would vote for it again this year. I then asked him for his co-sponsorship letting him know that people in his community wanted to know whether he would take a strong stance or not. “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you,” he told me. I had promised my friends that I would not walk out of the room without a concrete answer. “When can I hear back from you regarding your co-sponsorship Congressman Moore?” I asked him. “Within ten days,” “Within ten days?” “Yes, within ten days,” he answered.

I knew Congressman Moore would understand that punishing children for something they did not have a say in does not comport with the fundamentals of justice. Moreover, he understood that passing the DREAM Act benefits everyone. Passing the DREAM Act is the moral thing to do. Yahaira and I walked out of his office with smiles on our faces. We knew just having been able to meet with him was a victory.

Later that evening, we held a rally outside his office, not to pressure him, but rather to show him that people in his community cared about this issue. Children, students, teachers, parents and reporters showed up. It was a small crowd, but very diverse. I believe Queren, Yahaira, Erin and me did the fast. We abstained from food to empathize with the suffering of those who cannot realize their dreams. Right after the rally, my friends and I got into a car and drove 17 hours to North Carolina for the next DREAM field meeting.

The KS/MO DREAM alliance organized a call-in day a week after our meeting with Congressman Moore to remind him that constituents wanted him to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. The day after our call-in day, Congressman Dennis Moore attended a lunch during the Democracy for America Training in which Howard Dean said that we needed to pass the DREAM Act. My friend, Miguel , texted me letting me know that Congressman Moore had once again been reminded about the DREAM Act. While one might think all of these occurrences were coincidences, I believe it is the work of God. It was meant that I attended the retreat in Minneapolis; it was meant that I met Erin, Myrna, Brenna and Queren this year; it was meant that I was given the opportunity to be technical advisor of KHLAAC to voice the concerns and needs of students; it was meant that I traveled to D.C.; it was meant that Howard Dean reminded Congressman Moore on Saturday about the DREAM Act. God allowed for all of this to happen because of our faith. Today, ten days after I met with my Congressman, I was contacted by his staffers to let me know that he decided to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. The odds were great, but we endured. Our faith is unwavering. This was a team effort. This is not only a victory for the KS/MO DREAM Alliance, but for the youth movement.

Do not give up in the face of adversity. Together we will triumph.

1 comment:

  1. Will, how long did you fast? itz Brenda from NJ