It’s been a long journey for 18-year-old Herya Avila from where she was born in Mexico to the stage at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center she shared Aug. 20 with five other young immigrants striving to make better lives in Greater Cincinnati.
She and her peers were at the Freedom Center as part of the Dreamers’ Summit, an event designed to raise awareness about the struggles, and courage, of young undocumented immigrants in the area.
The event was organized by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Greater Cincinnati, the Greater Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Cincinnati chapter of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs.
Avila came with her family from Mexico to Florence, Ky., at age 4.
“We lived in a tiny apartment complex,” she said. “But to me, it was everything. We’d never seen a tall building before.”
When she first arrived in the U.S., Avila didn’t understand any English, but by second grade she was in her elementary school’s talented and gifted classes. Even as she thrived in school, her parents made sure she kept in touch with her roots, continuing to push her to learn Spanish while she was learning English.
But they didn’t explain much to her at first about her immigration status.
“It started in middle school, when I realized what undocumented meant,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy, being different. The first time I told one of my friends I was undocumented, she reacted in a way I hadn’t expected.”
It was sophomore year, the time when a buzz of excitement ripples among students getting ready to learn how to drive. Avila’s friend asked why she didn’t have a learner’s permit, and she told her — she didn’t have papers. Her friend was taken aback, asking, “You’re an illegal alien?”
“That’s when I really started telling my story to my peers,” Avila said, “and so I’m pretty sure by the time I graduated everyone knew I was undocumented and an immigrant.”
In high school, her peers voted her student representative on the Boone County Board of Education, representing the county’s 20,000 students.
Avila is in a stable situation for now. She has a work permit, but it costs over $400 to renew, an amount of money she admits she has trouble getting together. She’ll be attending Xavier’s honors program in the fall with sights set on law school, so she can be an immigration lawyer.
“Even though I’m in a safe position, my parents are still undocumented. I have three siblings. My family would be torn apart if something happened to my parents. It takes a toll. Sometimes I have bad days, when I read the news and I find out about what’s going on at the border, or what officials are saying what can happen in the future with immigration.”
That future is always-shifting and murky, with Congress fighting itself to a standstill over any kind of meaningful reform to the United States’ immigration law.
Currently, there is no path to citizenship for minors brought into the U.S.
without documentation, and apprehension by law enforcement usually means deportation.
Liberals, including President Obama, have pushed for comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws, specifically by advocating for passage of the so-called Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act. That law was first proposed in 2003 and came close to passage in 2010, making its way through the House of Representatives before being filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. The DREAM Act would give young people currently between 15 and 29 who came into the country as minors legal status and eventually provide opportunities for them to gain citizenship.
There are currently more than 900,000 so-called “DREAMers” in the U.S.
The DREAM Act has proven controversial. Conservatives say it amounts to amnesty for individuals who have broken the law and that it will encourage more immigrants to come to the United States without documentation. Though the national DREAM Act has failed to gain traction in Congress, 21 states have passed DREAM laws allowing undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children access to in-state tuition at public universities, among other benefits. Ohio currently doesn’t have such a law.
Advocates for reform say immigrants are a net-positive for the economy. Immigrants often work in difficult, low-paying jobs like the agricultural industry and pay more in sales and other taxes than they use in benefits. Research bears this out, to a point.
Estimates from the Social Security Administration say that taxes collected from undocumented workers have paid for about 10 percent of the trust fund set aside for Social Security. A 2007 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office stated that, “over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — exceed the cost of the services they use.”
A bill passed by the Senate and currently before the House would enact many of the reforms proposed by the DREAM Act, as well as funding border security efforts, a concession to those on the right. However, conservatives, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner have dug in their heels on the subject, refusing to consider the compromise.
Meanwhile, activists and Democrats have continued to push for reforms. The result has been frustrating: the irresistible force of the U.S.’s demographic shift toward a larger non-white population meeting the immovable object of tea-party affiliated Congressmen catering to their far-right constituencies in border states like Texas and Arizona, leading to a running stalemate on the issue.
The Aug. 20 summit was an effort to move the needle ever so slightly here in Greater Cincinnati.
“Immigration law is a line in the sand that is drawn by legislation,” said Cincinnati immigration lawyer Marylin Zayas-Davis, who spoke at the Summit. “Where people stand on that line will determine whether they’re in status or without status. Part of tonight’s purpose is to catalyze you to think about that line in the sand and where it should be drawn so that people are able to move from one side of the line to the other.”
Business leaders in Cincinnati are also among the chorus of local voices advocating for congressional action on immigration reform to help DREAMers. Former P&G CEO John Pepper spoke at the summit, slamming Congress for not passing reforms to help young immigrants work toward a better life in the U.S.
“I think it’s a damn shame,” he said. “It’s a complicated subject, immigration law. One thing that’s not complicated–the DREAM Act. That is as simple and clear and right as anything I’ve ever seen.”
Pepper told the young immigrants not to give up, and compared their struggle for reform to the Civil Rights movement and women’s sufferage.
Though much of the fight over immigration reform has been focused on those coming across the border from Mexico and Central American countries, U.S. policies also affect a number of people seeking to come here from across the globe.
Twenty-two-year-old Orsella Iranbona came to the Greater Cincinnati area from Burundi, a southeast African country next to Rwanda, at age 14. She can rattle off the exact date she arrived in the United States–June 22, 2006.
“The day we came here, it was so joyous,” she said. Iranbona and her family wore layers of coats on the plane because they couldn’t afford to bring more luggage.
“It was tough,” she said of her initial experience at school here. “I was called all kinds of names. I think students thought we Africans had a really savage life. I would go home crying.”
She was held back her first year at school. “After that, I kept on just telling myself that I came here for a purpose. I kept that in my mind and kept on going.”
She ended up taking classes for college credit in high school and earning a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University, where she’s currently a finance major graduating in December. She said she’d like to work for Kroger and make a life in Cincinnati.
“I’m very thankful for all the opportunities that have been put in front of me,” she said. “I thank my mom so much. I remember actually the first day after she got home from work, she said, ‘You need to study. You don’t want to do what I’m doing right now.’ ”
Iranbona had words of encouragement for Cincinnati-area DREAMers.
“Just know that you’re going to make it,” she said. “It’s gonna be tough, but you know, you’re strong. You’re here for a purpose.” ©