It wasn’t until the handcuffs clicked around her wrists and the officer began reciting her Miranda rights that Benita Veliz knew things weren’t going to be okay. In that moment of helplessness, Benita did all she could—cry and pray. “God, you know my situation. I’m sorry. If I could do something to fix it, I would. If I could change things, I would. But it’s beyond my control.”
What crime did this former high school valedictorian commit? Did this young woman, who earned a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, swindle anyone out of millions of dollars? No. Benita’s crime was committed in 1993 when, at the age of eight, she entered the U.S. with her family using a tourist visa and then never left.
For most of us, getting a traffic ticket messes with our day. We grumble about it and then pay the fine. But for Veliz and others like her, a traffic ticket can lead to a nightmare. On January 21, Benita was stopped for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. She didn’t have a driver’s license, only her Mexican consular I.D. When the patrol officer asked where she was born, she told him. And when he asked if she was illegal, she said yes. “I’ve always been a firm believer in telling the truth versus lying,” Veliz said. “I’ve always been one of those people who thought it’s just better to come out with it even though it is not a good thing. So I told him the truth.”
Now Veliz faces deportation from a country she loves and the only place she knows as home. A place where she has been an active member of her community, volunteering for several nonprofit agencies, and building an outstanding academic record. Her chances now of remaining in the U.S. are slim.
At the urging of her attorney, Veliz began to write to different publications about her situation, hoping to draw attention to the issue. Lawrence Downes from the New York Times responded to her plea and published an editorial piece on March 28, the day after U.S. Representative Howard Berman (D-CA) and U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act into the U.S. House and Senate, respectively. It was perfect timing.
Alfonso de la Torre, a current student at St. Mary’s University, read the editorial and was moved by the story. Even though he is a citizen of Peru—he’s in the U.S. on a student visa—de la Torre decided that something had to be done. “It’s not a matter of where I’m from, it’s a matter that we’re all human beings and we all share a common sense of justice and a common sense that this is not right.” So he posted the link to the editorial on his Facebook page.
That’s when Greg Pardo saw the story. Pardo met Veliz in 2005 when both were students at St. Mary’s and involved with the Student Government Association. The SGA started advocating for awareness of the DREAM Act. “She brought in a lot of enthusiasm, but she also brought in a lot of knowledge. She knew the DREAM Act pretty well,” he said. Yet Pardo didn’t realize why Veliz knew so much about the subject. “I assumed that she understands what people are facing, she knows people who are facing these situations, so why not advocate for it.” When he read the New York Times editorial, he finally understood.
Now a graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, Pardo contacted de la Torre and suggested they start small by creating a Facebook group in support of Veliz’s cause. On March 30, the group, “Don’t Deport Benita Veliz,” was created, and within 24 hours it had over 200 members. At the time of this story, those numbers have reached more than 550. Comments on the group’s wall range from, “Sorry this is happening to you, Benny,” to calls for petitions and media attention.
When Veliz saw the Facebook group, she was speechless. She had felt so alone in her ordeal and thought that no one would know what happened to her if she was forced to go back to Mexico. Seeing the Facebook group changed that. “To see that people really cared and people were willing to stand beside me was so overwhelming, and I’m so incredibly grateful for that.”
Soon, however, de la Torre and Pardo realized that there was a much larger issue at hand. According to Pardo, “You have to find the root of the problem. Why is this happening? Why is she being deported? Are other people facing this same situation? It just goes back to the DREAM Act. You have to start thinking long term.” So they decided to use Veliz’s case as a jumping off point for promoting the passage of the DREAM Act. They hope that by associating it with a story like Veliz’s they can humanize the issue and gain more popular support.
The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 and offers illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children (at age fifteen or younger) a path to legalization and ultimately citizenship. In order to receive conditional permanent residency, applicants must demonstrate good moral character and have graduated high school or received a G.E.D. For the conditional status to be removed, they must graduate from an institution of higher learning, including two-year colleges and certain vocational schools, or serve in the military for at least two years. The last time the DREAM Act went to a vote in 2007, it failed by eight votes.
Aracely Garcia-Granados is the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together. MATT.org strives to be the conduit for dialogue between Americans and Mexicans about issues that affect both countries. Immigration education and reform is only one of the many issues that they tackle. “The DREAM Act is a necessity,” Garcia-Granados said. “It has to happen. And the legislators get it. The thing is, we need to provide coverage [for the politicians] and learn how the system works.”
Garcia-Granados, however, is concerned about the timing of the latest DREAM Act initiative. With so much on the national agenda—the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, and energy—she is afraid that the DREAM Act might not make it during this session but believes that it will be part of a larger, comprehensive immigration bill in the fall.
Veliz is still hopeful that the DREAM Act can pass on its own. “I strongly, firmly believe that it can happen. It can pass. We just need to raise awareness about the issue, and now that I’m free to talk about it with anybody, I don’t have anything else to lose, I’m going to make sure that I do everything I can to make sure that happens.”
According to Garcia-Granados, Senator John Cornyn and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republicans from Texas, both “get” the issue, but she believes they ultimately will vote as their constituents decree. That’s why she urges people to let their elected officials know how they feel about the issues.
Student organizers at St. Mary’s University have been holding information sessions for their peers. Educating them about the issue by using Veliz’s story as a backdrop has been their first goal, but they have also been encouraging students to get involved. On April 3, they held a demonstration and gathered more than 150 letters each for Cornyn and Hutchison.
Unless the DREAM Act passes, people like Benita Veliz—people who have been positive role models and given so much to their communities—will stay in the shadows. Veliz will be deported and forced to return to a country that she no longer knows.
To critics who wonder what the DREAM Act is going to cost U.S. taxpayers, Benita only asks to be given the opportunity to pay it back. “I want to get Federal Withholding held from my paycheck. I’m sorry that I couldn’t pay for my education, kindergarten through high school. I really am. But if you give me an opportunity now, I will spend the rest of my life paying into the tax system and contributing to American society the way I wish I could.”
With everything she has already given to our society, it would be a shame to lose what else she has to contribute.