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Pursuing the DREAM: a View from Inside the Student-Led Campaign for Immigration Reform

Attorney Russell Jauregui with La Raza Law Students Association officers Luis M.Gonzelez, Marisol Ornelas, Priscilla Gamino, and Marisol C. Swadener

Imagine you believed in a cause, one that was not just political, but highly personal to you. Imagine that you rallied, prayed, organized, risked arrest, and starved yourself in support of this cause, only to watch your dream slip away.

Immigration attorney and civil rights advocate Russell Juaregui, California Western's fall diversity speaker, described the moment on the floor of the U.S. Senate in late December 2010 when supporters of the DREAM Act watched the bill go down in defeat. The bill, which would place undocumented students on the path to U.S. citizenship, and which had been the culmination of months and years of work by passionate and dedicated students, fell five votes short of what was needed to break a filibuster.

"You could hear a pin drop," Jauregui said. "My dad was a boxer. It was like a kidney punch. You don't get up from that...but they did."

In his noontime talk, "Dreamers, Immigration, and Social Justice," Juaregui walked the audience through the many steps taken by a group of dedicated young people to pursue their dream of equal access to higher education.

"I've never met a group of more courageous students," he said about the so-called DREAMers, high school and college students who grew up in the United States without legal authorization. Many were babies or young children when their families emigrated here and who, for myriad reasons, did not pursue legal immigration status.

The students and advocates picked themselves up after their defeat in the Senate and looked for administrative remedies that would achieve what they couldn't do with legislation.

Juaregui and a group of immigration lawyers strategized around three types of administrative relief that would allow undocumented students to remain in the U.S. to complete school and pursue citizenship.

He described the frustration they felt that their voices were not being heard, and the unusual—and unusually risky—step students took which ultimately resulted in real federal action.

Organizers held a massive demonstration at the U.S. immigration court in Los Angeles, risking arrest by U.S. Marshals and possible federal charges. They delivered a memo signed by 90 law professors across the United States—outlining the actions the Obama administration could take—to the chief administrative judge. That demonstration led to a series of meetings with Obama administration officials, who were impressed by the significant work the students had done in advance.

"When they were presented the memo signed by 90 law professors, their jaws dropped," Jauregui said.

As the student advocates prepared to take their protest into the 2012 federal elections, they heard the news they had been waiting for. President Obama announced in the summer of 2012 that the more than 600,000 undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children could remain, under a policy known as "deferred action."

Students in the audience appreciated the story-telling approach Jauregui took in his remarks.

"I felt like I was there,” says 3L Marisol C. Swadener, President of the La Raza Law Student Association. "I felt like I was experiencing it with them."

She was inspired by the story of students like her—many from her alma mater, UCLA—who found like-minded people and worked together in pursuit of their goal.

In a question and answer session after his talk, Jauregui answered the question on the minds of many in the audience: what will happen to the DREAMers when President Obama leaves office.

"Deferred action could end," he said, although he questioned the political value of taking on such a dedicated and fearless group of young people.

"They won't take it lying down," he said.