Immigrant hangs hopes on Dream Team

The Charlotte ObserverJuly 1, 2011 

A 22-year-old Central Piedmont Community College student in Charlotte facing deportation has placed his future in the hands of a group of his peers - also young, also here illegally.

Erick Velazquillo says they're his last hope to stay in the country that's been his home since he was 2.

Velazquillo, who graduated from South Mecklenburg High, was arrested in October. The charges: failing to dim his headlights and driving without a valid license. He is now in the process of being deported.

On July 19, he'll ask an immigration judge and federal prosecutors not to send him back to Mexico.

He said two Latino organizations and several lawyers advised him not to fight for fear he would receive greater immigration penalties.

Instead, he turned to a statewide group of young activists, known as the "N.C. Dream Team."

The Raleigh-based group, whose slogan is "Undocumented and Unafraid," thinks it can help. Velazquillo's case is their first Charlotte initiative.

Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the Dream Team is part of a national push by young people to the front of immigration reform.

They've confronted legislators, launched hunger strikes, and even announced their illegal status to draw attention to their demands.

They are calling for passage of "the Dream Act," a legal change that would make it easier for young people to become U.S. citizens if they attend college or join the military.

And they say they are fed up with established Latino advocates whom they accuse of botching earlier bipartisan support for the act.

"We've had enough," said N.C. Dream Team co-founder Viridiana Martinez of Sanford. "We know we're taking risks, facing arrest every time we come out. But we have to speak out for ourselves. Because if we don't do it someone else is going to do it. And that has gotten us nowhere."

The group formed last summer during a 13-day hunger strike in Raleigh to draw attention to the Dream Act. The name stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

Velazquillo learned of the group through his sister, Angelica. She shared her brother's story with the members.

The Dream Team plans to broadcast Velazquillo's appeal to their 1,100 N.C. supporters. But as many as 10,000 people are likely to learn about Velazquillo through the group's affiliated networks nationwide.

Erick Velazquillo, who is studying to be a nutritionist, said he's never been back to Mexico.

"It is scary," he said. "The only people I know over there are my grandmother who is 72 and my grandfather who is 74...What am I going to do?"

Law uses discretion

The Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years. While the Dream Act failed last fall, the administration has made it clear that they don't want to deport college-age students who have not committed major crimes.

Some 800,000 established immigrants - including about 51,000 in North Carolina - would be covered by the act. But the bill has languished in Congress for 10 years.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it was encouraging agents to use "prosecutorial discretion" for young illegal immigrants who are seeking college degrees.

The authorities are now instructed to give "particular care and consideration" to individuals "present in the United States since childhood."

Team allies and bullies

The Dream Team includes some U.S.-born allies.

Domenic Powell grew up in Charlotte and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. The 24-year-old, whose mother is Mexican-American, helps run the group's blog and media relations.

He said his reasons for becoming involved are simple: "I don't see how you can remain silent when this is happening to your friends."

In January, member Loida Ginocchio-Silva, 23, confronted U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan during a visit with constituents.

"Your vote against the Dream Act was a denial to our existence," she said in the exchange caught on video. "It was a denial to my future."

Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, told Ginocchio-Silva that she supported the Dream Act, but as part of a comprehensive reform package.

Hagan did not answer specific Charlotte Observer questions about the Dream Team. She was one of five Democrats to vote to block the Dream Act in December. But comments from her staff indicate a possible softening of her position.

"Her mind is open to any sensible, bipartisan initiative that moves the country and North Carolina forward," spokeswoman Stephanie Allen said. When state Rep. Dale Folwell, a Winston-Salem Republican, sought to collect immigration data on K-12 students, the Dream Team dubbed him "North Carolina's biggest school bully."

Folwell said the goal of the measure, which was dropped, was to show the costs of educating illegal immigrants.

"People get tired of the simplicity of this, but $1 spent on an illegal is $1 taken away from a law-abiding citizen."

Ron Woodard, head of NC Listen, which advocates for greater immigration enforcement, said the students should be confronting their parents instead of making demands on the American people.

"Every illegal immigrant who gets into college here is going to displace a U.S. citizen because there are not enough seats," he said. "The right thing to do is not disenfranchise an American citizen."

The Dream Team has been inspired by recent successes.

The group led a campaign for Fredd Reyes, a Guilford Technical Community College student who was awaiting deportation in Georgia.

Reyes was released in November after federal officials received more than 3,500 emails in his behalf.

In April, two members of the Dream Team were arrested in an Atlanta demonstration. Martinez and Jose Rico, a student at Wake Technical Community College, joined five other undocumented peers who sat down in the middle of a street and announced they were in the country illegally.

"We're not ashamed anymore," Rico, 21, told the Charlotte Observer. "We need to tell everyone that we exist, that we're undocumented, and put a face to the issue."

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