WASHINGTON - A major topic discussed during the Take Back the American Dream conference here last week was immigrant rights and fighting for the DREAM Act.
In a strategy session, young immigrant rights activists lamented the fact that over 1 million people have been deported just this summer under President Obama.
Panelist Gaby Pacheco, leader with United We Dream, said she came to the U.S. from Ecuador to Florida with her parents when she was eight years old. Since the fifth grade she knew she was destined for college. She excelled in college becoming the student government president, not just of her college, but also of the 28 colleges in the whole college system in the state of Florida. Pacheco graduated from Miami-Dade College.
A teacher once told her that she was an "illegal" and that her only option was to get a job a McDonalds.
"I started my activism because of that," said Pacheco.
She said in 2006 immigration officials raided her home in the middle of the night demanding identification from her and her family. She remembers seeing her family being taken away in a white van.
"They came after me because I started to speak out even though I had been living in the U.S. for 20 years," she said. "This is the place my family and I call home."
Her father was put under house arrest and an electronic tracking device was shackled to his ankle, she said. "I saw my father age during that whole process."
We need to continue pressuring Obama to follow through on his promises and hold him and the immigration movement accountable, she added. Children should not be afraid to go to school in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and other states where anti-immigrant laws are now targeting immigrants.
"We're trying to help folks get released from detention centers and get the community involved to stand up and say enough is enough."
Axel Caballero, founder of Cuéntame, an online immigrant advocacy group, said his organization is using social media tools to build relationships between rights activists across the country.
The private immigration detention systems are profiting five billion dollars a year, he said.
"And who benefits and profits from this," asked Caballero.
Many of the CEOs connected to these private detention facilities are affiliated with radical right-wing and nativists organizations, he notes. The deportation and private detention system is a multi-billion industry and is making money with every immigrant detained per day.
Caballero highlighted several cases of men detained for months including one man who was arrested because he didn't have a driver's license. He told of another man who was mentally ill and was held in a private detention center unknown to his family for two years before being released.
"Those who wish to criminalize immigrants are taking advantage of the profits in the whole detention system," he said. "And telling people's horror stories victimized by the system helps us advocate for reform."
Dulce Matuz, 26, originally from Mexico, has been living in Phoenix, Arizona for over 10 years. She is active with a local immigrant rights group there. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2009 with a bachelor's in electrical engineering.
"As an engineer I want to work in the field of renewable energy but I don't have documents," she said. "I am American in every way except for my paperwork."
She said last May one of her friends graduated from ASU as valedictorian with a degree in mechanical engineering, but she too is undocumented.
"So why do we continue to waste that talent," she asks. "I can get a job anywhere else except in the U.S."
She continued, "We need to find common ground on the immigration question and the conversation shouldn't be 'let's deport them all.' It's not feasible or practical, but at the same time I understand we can't say let's legalize everyone either."
As a first world country we need to be leading in innovation and technology, she added. "But if we're not investing in education and my generation we're going to fall behind in the age of the green energy revolution."
Matuz said she didn't go to school for organizing but has learned "organically" how to organize for the DREAM Act, immigration reform and building coalitions for change.
"We're tired of politicians playing with the lives of Dream activists. We plan to lead civic engagement campaigns to make sure Latinos and youth come out and vote. I have hope, not in the politicians, but in the people working every day to fight for justice. We have learned that we cannot expect one person to create the conditions for change. We have to ask ourselves, 'what are we doing to fix the problem.'"
Matuz said she is extremely disappointed in the Republican Party. Many GOP lawmakers initiated the DREAM Act but now they're playing politics, she said, and it's even more disheartening that some Democrats have also recanted their vote on the measure. Passing the DREAM Act this year is unlikely, she said.
"But I know we can make a difference in 2012 and we're going to continue working hard every day until our goals and dreams are fulfilled," she said.
Photo: Dulce Matuz, left, and Carmen Perez, right, with Gathering for Justice, at the Take Back the American Dream conference Oct. 4th in Washington, D.C. Pepe Lozano/PW