Why It's Up to Us to Change the Future For Undocumented Youth

Together let's create a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals, students, and their families.

Imagine you are a young man of color holding a can of red spray paint because you are touching up some of your artwork. A law enforcement vehicle drives up toward you. Two officers step out, ask you to stop what you're doing, and instruct you to provide them with a copy of your driver's license. You don't have one because even though you've spent years in this country, attending schools where each morning you pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, technically, you're undocumented—an American in every way except for on paper, and unfortunately it's only the paper that counts.

This happens in front of your home so your barefoot mother runs out. Despite her corroboration of your name and age—and her willingness to produce an ID bearing her name, age, and address—the officers put you in the back of the patrol car. They insist your profile matches that of a suspect they've been looking for, but after searching your person, the contents of your cell phone, and everything else they see fit to examine, they are unable to find any evidence. But you're still in the back of the police car. They won't let you go.

You explain that the spray paint they found was purchased by a campaign to promote immigration reform for which you volunteer, and regularly create stencil and canvas art pieces. The officers do not believe you because you are unable to produce a receipt—a piece of paper you don't have because it is in the hands of the campaign employee who made the purchase. In your wallet the officers find more cash than they think you should have. They accuse you of further wrongdoing.

You tell them the money is from your part-time job. They ask for your pay stub. You cannot produce one because as an undocumented youth, you cannot fill out a W-2, W-9, or other tax form. You cannot receive payment for work performed unless it is in the form of cash under the table. They insist the cash and the spray paint suggest gang involvement. You ask them to ask your mom about your part-time job, and to visit the social media pages of the campaign for which you volunteer to see photos of your artwork. They refuse.

They insist you admit there's a gang-affiliated street name you tag under, and want you to name the persons you "bomb" and hang out with. They say you have too many cans of paint for one person. You repeat that you are responsible for making hundreds and hundreds of pieces of artwork for a campaign. They ask again for a valid photo ID bearing your name and U.S. residence. You admit your status, and point out your eligibility for deferred action (DACA). You explain that you had to pay for a background check as part of your application, and it came up clean. You are a high school graduate. You're going to get a tax ID number, and work for checks, not cash. Because you live in California, you also plan on getting a driver's license. At present you don't have anything you can give them. You are not a citizen. But you have submitted paperwork for prosecutorial discretion—protection from deportation.

As you sit in the back of the police car, your mother fights back tears as she helplessly calls everyone she can think of. You've done nothing wrong but you prepare yourself for the possibility that this arrest might cost you your citizenship—the creation of a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans is a matter before Congress now. You prepare yourself for the possibility that this arrest might lead to your deportation to a country you have not lived in since you were seven years old.

This isn't fiction or hyperbole. This is what I witnessed the night before flying to Netroots Nation 2013 as I passed by the home of a DREAMer named Danny who has contributed his tremendous talents as an artist to the production of thousands of pieces of art on behalf of "The Dream is Now," a film and a campaign created to pass immigration reform in 2013. Danny's work on behalf of the campaign appears in the 30-minute film—a documentary by Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim.

I stopped by Danny's house to pick up 350 spray paint stencil banners bearing the campaign's Twitter hashtag—#thedreamisnow—for distribution at Netroots. I walked by the patrol car and saw Danny inside. After quickly reassuring his mother, I pulled out my iPhone, and the officers, worried I might be recording them, approached me. I introduced myself and asked why Danny was being detained. They made reference to the many spray paint cans. I told them that I purchased the materials they believed made Danny look guilty. I showed them photos of events where Danny's artwork had been distributed, posted on The Dream Is Now campaign's social media pages. I showed them my driver's license, and explained why he didn't yet have one. I didn't share any new information. But my citizenship and skin color made everything I was saying credible—even though Danny and I both spoke to the officers in English, using the same words, and were able to produce the same photos and anecdotal evidence.

There are 11 million more undocumented Americans just like Danny who dream, work, pray, live, learn, and love in the United States. Undocumented Americans cannot purchase homes, apply for federal financial aid, start a business with one or more employees, or even accept a job offer that involves an I-9, regardless of the amount of money they save, their English language fluency, the number of years they've been U.S. residents, or even if their level of educational attainment extends beyond college. Around 60 percent arrived without documentation and around 40 percent have documentation they are unable to renew, causing them to fall out of status.

The immigration system, writ large, has not enjoyed a head-to-toe revision in nearly 30 years. Sadly, even vitally needed piecemeal legislation proposed in the past has failed. The DREAM Act, whose sole purpose was to enable the 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school every year to go to college, or join the military, was defeated in 2010 by a Senate filibuster.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Congress were to create a reasonable pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans this year, it would add around $1 trillion to our country's GDP over the next decade, and reduce our deficit by an additional $1 trillion over the next two decades. That means 159,000 more new jobs per year, Social Security restored, etc. Yet, statistics are not as memorable as stories, especially ones told on film. And that is why The Dream Is Now documentary is proving so vital in giving Americans from every background the energy to do something about immigration reform.

Like Danny, the five youth—Erika, Ola, Jose, Alejandro, and Joaquin—profiled in the film, lack social security numbers because of their undocumented status, but their dreams and efforts are demonstrative of the American ideal. The bottom line is that until both the House and Senate pass an immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans, and until President Obama signs it into law, U.S. residency without the threat of deportation is out of reach for them.

On Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT), Organizing For Action, will screen The Dream Is Now for free online, and viewers are invited to join an online panel afterward. If you miss this event, you can still watch it by visiting, or watching on YouTube, iTunes, and Netflix.

The Senate will vote on an immigration reform bill any day now and the House meets on July 10 to discuss what will be brought to the floor. Poll after poll demonstrates the majority of people support creating a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans, but members of Congress do not respond to this data. They respond to pressure from their constituents.

DREAMers like Erika, Ola, Jose, Alejandro, Danny, and their families—our fellow Americans—need you to call or write your Senators and Congresspeople right away. Our elected leaders need to receive calls, letters, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts specifically articulating support. If they do not, they’ll simply appease the vocal minority that opposes immigration reform.

Contacting your representatives is as easy as entering your phone number and zip code on Facebook, or visiting a webpage designed to transform your name and email into a series of letters, tweets and Facebook posts. As Howard Zinn once wrote, "And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." Together let's create a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals, students, and their families.

Click here to add calling Congress to demand that they support immigration reform to your GOOD to-do list.