I look at the stage where the panel of experts is sitting; each of them renown in their respective professional field.
I see a college president, a university scholar, a state politician, an urban planning activist, a foundation president.
And she is in the middle. Groomed and poised as the professional young woman she is becoming.
She takes the microphone and introduces herself, her affiliation as a student of political science at Marygrove College, and then says: “I am an American, and I am undocumented.”
The room is riveted.
Dayanna Rebolledo is 19 years-old. Her earlier thoughts of dropping out of high school, like the thoughts of hundreds of other youth in Detroit, are still haunting her.
For many of her childhood years depression and isolation drove her body and spirit.
“In my heart, this was my country. But, it was while as a senior in high school that I came to believe that I had no future,” she said to me as I was helping her to prepare for her first presentation a few weeks earlier before an audience of nearly two hundred national leaders brought to Detroit by the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance.
Dayanna talked of the fear of deportation she felt while growing up, describing this fear as if it were a ghost walking by her side at every moment, telling her that she didn’t belong, that she had no country at all.
She came to Detroit at a very young age with her parents, a working-poor family from Mexico who sought the dream of the North as their only way to give their children food and education.
“You will go to college someday,” she remembers her mother telling her – when she was allowed to dream.
“But I lived a lie, a constant lie,” Dayanna tells me because of her undocumented status, her voice overwhelmed by tears.
“My friends would ask me why I couldn’t drive and I would say I didn’t like it.”
“They would ask me to go on trips by airplane or train and I would say I didn’t have time.”
“I missed lots of activities the school organized for my class and I couldn’t tell anybody why,” she sighed.
“My depression only deepened, until that day.”
She recollects that day, “I saw this young man from Iran saying it, in front of everybody,” Dayanna said as her eyes lit up and her voice grew excited as she began to explain. It was a pivotal and cathartic experience, her first encounter with empowerment.
She heard this 18–year-old say it: “I am undocumented.” And, he said it loud and clear in a room full of other people. He said it publicly.
That’s when Dayanna began to dream again.
“I think it must be like what any gay person feels when they come out of the closet,” she paused while lifting her eyes to meet mine. “It’s a feeling of liberation, of finding others like myself, of discovering a community that can struggle together.”
Into the Light … and Back Into the Darkness?
Her rebirth resulted from an invitation to attend the “Coming Out of the Shadows” event organized by One Michigan, a local grassroots organizing effort that encourages undocumented youth to find their inner power and turn our society’s offer of hopelessness into leadership for a better America.
One Michigan and similar other organizations in almost every town of America are the driving force behind rallying support for the Dream Act, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented youth.
They organize emergency actions to rescue youth from deportation—like the successful case of Ivan Nikolov, a 22 year-old “Dreamer” who came to Detroit as a toddler from Russia.
They bring themselves in masses to Lansing and Washington DC, and the day before President Obama announced his executive order known as Deferred Action last June, Dayanna and hundreds of Dream Act organizers were protesting and holding sit-ins at local Obama administrative offices and at The White House for the eighth time in three months.
There have been relentless immigration raids and massive deportation of families under the first two years of President Obama’s administration.
In fact, he earned the name “Deportation President” by these communities. Fear was everywhere for Latinos, Middle Eastern, Africans, and other immigrants in Detroit.
Dayanna is one of several Marygrove College students whose deportation would be suspended by the President’s Deferred Action. The college administration has partnered with a prominent business leader to provide the legal and community support these young dreamers need in their application process.
Over 1.4 million young people in the nation may get work permits and legal status …
… but only for two years.
In two years all may go back to darkness – unless the re-elected President, in whom Latinos have entrusted their hopes by giving him 71% of their vote, honors his promise.
I know President Obama will be reminded again and again — as many times as necessary — of the promise he made to Latinos and other immigrants who have helped build this country. I know he will be reminded again and again of the promise he has made to our youth, the future of this country.
Like Dayanna, they have come out of the shadows. And nothing is going to stop them.