DREAM of Reform is Alive in Fayetteville

DREAM of Reform is Alive in Fayetteville
NWA Democrat-Gazette/Michael Woods DREAM Act advocates, from left, Alejandro Montoya, Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas talk about their experiences as undocumented immigrants during a discussion panel April 8 at the University of Arkansas. The panel of activists participated in the discussion with University of Arkansas students and faculty in an effort to help solve the issues undocumented immigrants living in the United States encounter throughout their lives.

Photo by Michael Woods/NWA Democrat-Gazette | Illustration by Jose Lopez Bribiesca
DREAM Act advocates, from left, Alejandro Montoya, Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas talk about their experiences as undocumented immigrants during a discussion panel April 8 at the University of Arkansas. The panel of activists participated in the discussion with University of Arkansas students and faculty in an effort to help solve the issues undocumented immigrants living in the United States encounter throughout their lives.

By Jose Lopez Bribiesca

He has a juris doctor and speaks with a Brooklyn accent.

She has a psychology degree and uses Arizona dialect.

Together they visit a small house in south Fayetteville, interacting with some 35 college students who, for the most part, have a Southern drawl.

Most have a dark complexion, Spanish is their first language, and they came to the United States as children without documents.

Cesar Vargas, 31, passed the New York Bar exam in 2011, but is not allowed to practice law because of his immigration status.

Erika Andiola, 27, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Arizona State University, even though she was bereft of all her scholarships in 2008, when the law changed to prevent undocumented students from receiving a higher education.

It’s Tuesday evening, April 7. Erika and Cesar have just arrived from XNA after a few days in Austin, Texas.

Local student leaders who share their immigration quandary had been cooking a feast — carne asada, guacamole and micheladas. They share food and wisdom with this couple who advocates for immigration reform on a national stage.

Cesar addresses the group in Spanish, which he speaks with a mix of the prevalent accents in the Five Boroughs — Dominican, Puerto Rican, maybe some Peruvian. But not Mexican, though he was born in Puebla.

He jokes that Erika made the comment “there’s nobody in Arkansas.”

“Ohhhhh my God, no dije eso,” Erika protests, meaning she never said such thing.

The room erupts in laughter, hootin’ and hollerin’, all in Spanglish.

“No but seriously, thank you all so much … I love the power that you all create in Arkansas despite of the crazy politics,” Cesar says. “To be more specific, you all are the next political power, like the senators, the congressmen, the chiefs of staff, you name it, presidents of universities. That’s what Arkansas is about.”

Cesar and Erika are co-directors of the DREAM Action Coalition, a nonprofit advocating for what they describe as fair, nondiscriminatory immigration laws nationwide.

“DREAM” refers to a mouthful of a proposed law: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

It’s a bill that would grant temporary and conditional resident status to bright high school students who entered the country illegally as children. The idea is that so-called DREAMers will be assets to American society if they finish their college degrees or serve in the military.

The DREAM Act has never passed in several attempts since 2001.

Both Cesar and Erika will be featured in this year’s “Coming out of the Shadows” panel at the University of Arkansas, in which students would speak fearlessly about their struggle to earn a college education, sans immigration papers.

This would be the third installment, the first one was in March 2011. Cesar came to Fayetteville in March 2012 to be part of the second one.


From Compatriot to Compatriot

Jose Lopez Bribiesca/La Prensa Libre Young leaders of the Hispanic community in Northwest Arkansas chill with Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas at Burrito Loco restaurant April 9.

Jose Lopez Bribiesca/La Prensa Libre
Erika Andiola, from left, and Cesar Vargas, DREAM Action Coalition co-directors, hang out making s’mores with local DREAMers and supporters of immigration reform Irvin Camacho, Jairo Reyes and Michel Rangel Tuesday, April 7, in south Fayetteville.

Erika has TV-friendly almond eyes and olive skin. She’s been a guest on countless newscasts to talk immigration reform and is eloquent in both English and Spanish media.

She’s even been in a music video, as one of the protagonists for “Ice El Hielo” by La Santa Cecilia. In the video, shot in Italian neo-realist fashion using non-actors in main roles, Erika plays a waitress who gets caught up in an immigration raid in Los Angeles. “Most of the actors in this video are undocumented,” a title card reads at the end of the video.

For Erika, home is Phoenix (or, as her Arizona Chicano accent leaks out at times, “Fee-neex”). She was born in Durango, Mexico, and crossed the desert 11 years later. Immigration caught her and placed her in detention two times before she successfully crossed on the third try.

Leaving Mexico was a matter of safety.

“My mom was a victim of domestic violence, so I think that her struggle really made us be very close,” she says.

On Jan. 11, 2013, after raising her national profile as an immigration activist, the dreaded knock came to her door. It was Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, El Hielo).

They took away her mom, Maria Arreola. Erika posted a YouTube video immediately to divulge the news, which sparked action all over the country — people from every state flooded the phones of immigration authorities, asking that Maria not be deported.

Maria was released with an order of supervision, so she has to check in with immigration from time to time.

What hurt Erika most was seeing her mom, a 53-year-old at the time, with chains on her body.

“Why would they do that to someone who’s not a threat at all? And I’m afraid that they can do that again and put her in detention, and detention is one of the worst places that I’ve seen.”

As far as the DREAM Action Coalition directors, Erika says she’s the more “lefty” of the two, Cesar being more conservative and with an unfulfilled yearning for a military lifestyle — another non-option for people illegally here.

She has led protests and been arrested, though it seems in the two years since her mom’s near deportation, she has been making less liberal noise and opted for Cesar’s quieter, more moderate advocacy.

Cesar seems very relaxed and natural wearing a suit and tie, Erika admits she hates dressing up; it’s not her persona.

She clarifies the previous “there’s nobody in Arkansas” comment: she simply didn’t know what to expect from this state.


The Golden Cage

“Aren’t YOU a DREAMer also?” my wife asks me Wednesday afternoon, a couple hours before the panel.

“No….Or…Wait… Am I?”

Here’s the thing. I came to the U.S. from Mexico with a tourist visa in 1993. The University of Arkansas accepted my dad for its doctoral program in plant science. I was 10.

Since then I’ve entered the country legally countless times. But every few years, I’ve changed nonimmigrant status: dependent of a student, dependent of a worker, student, student again, work permit, student again, work permit, work visa (my current status, set to expire in 2016).

Fayetteville is where I earned my education from sixth grade to my master’s degree. It’s home.

But I cannot become a permanent resident or an American citizen simply because I’ve had proper documentation for close to 22 years.

Just the other day, I told my situation to the president of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, our parent company. He was outraged. My immigration status has boggled many who’ve known me, but the law is the law. I’ve come to terms with it at 32, something that wasn’t easy in high school.

Though I never entered the country illegally, I’ve faced the same struggles the DREAMers have encountered. Many college scholarships and opportunities, for example, are only open to U.S. citizens, so I was excluded from them.

The worst is what I call Golden Cage Syndrome. It’s the existential ennui of knowing you’re in a country with a better sociopolitical situation, better infrastructure, better education — but feeling trapped with many restrictions, not to mention drowning in a stifling nostalgia, your heart constantly aching for the magic of the country you left behind.

The longer I’ve been in the U.S., the greater the feeling of being rejected by both nations simultaneously. This leaves you disillusioned with the American dream. I’m too American to be Mexican and too Mexican to be American.

I arrive at the university’s student union, where the panel takes place, and I greet my group of friends. Most of them show the biggest symptom of Golden Cage Syndrome — too American to be Mexican and too Mexican to be American.


Thousands of Dreams

Bill Schwab, sociologist at the University of Arkansas, takes the podium and delivers the event’s opening remarks. He used to have little awareness of immigration issues, but while assessing the Hispanic population of Northwest Arkansas in 2007, he met a few Arkansas DREAMers. He began conducting extensive research about these youngsters’ impact on American society.

His book, “The right to DREAM: Immigration Reform and America’s Future,” is his academic sword and shield against misconceptions on immigration — both legal and illegal — and uses empirical research to show it makes financial sense to give legal status to the DREAMers.

Schwab takes the podium while the five panelists, including Cesar and Erika, are in the front row of the audience.

“States have been active in dealing with immigration issues because we have a dysfunctional Congress,” Schwab says. “Our 113th Congress was the least productive in the history of our republic. And so 20 states have passed their own form of DREAM Act, which provides undocumented students in-state tuition. In other words, education becomes more affordable.”

Schwab describes the impact of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) since its implementation August 2012.

“DACA offers a two-year reprieve from deportation and provides temporary work authorization for many unauthorized immigrants who were brought here to the United States as children. It also can be renewed,” Schwab says.

DACA helps society because it allows the government “to focus its enforcement powers and resources on high priority cases,” Schwab adds, but the main point is that it allows access to higher education to young people who will contribute more “to an economy that we all share.”

DACA has worked, Schwab continues — about 60 percent of beneficiaries got a new job, 45 percent increased their income, almost 50 percent opened a bank account, 57 percent have drivers’ licenses.

“Simply, DACA has allowed these young people to come out of the shadows and more fully participate in our economy, and I’m reminding you that the economy is one that benefits us all.”

There are 1.7 million potential beneficiaries, according to Homeland Security estimates, “but hundreds of thousands of young people have not yet applied,” Schwab says, as Erika nods. “And that’s why we’re here this evening.”


The Other Mexico

The participants of the panel “DACAmented and Still DREAMing” walk up to the stage and take their places.

All five, including Cesar and Erika, were born in Mexico: Jazmin Berlanga will be a doctoral candidate in physics at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences; Cyndi Beltrán is a junior at the University of Arkansas; Alejandro Montoya is a student at NorthWest Arkansas Community College.

Cyndi’s family escaped drug violence in her native Culiacán and entered the U.S. legally, but her immigration case has been in limbo for about a decade. Jazmin’s parents also escaped violence in Tijuana and brought her as a baby, so she has no memory of Mexico. Alejandro doesn’t remember much about his native Mexico City even though he left at age 7.

“The hardest thing for me was not being able to serve the armed forces,” Alejandro says, choking up and pausing for several seconds. “But I’m still pursuing that dream.”

I ask the panelists a question that’s troubled me for years — with all the leadership and academic skills you’ve acquired in the U.S., can’t you go and transfer those into Mexico and thrive there?

But the answer is the same: it would take years to adapt to the foreign country that is your birth country. Many who’ve returned — either through deportation or by choice — have been rejected, bullied because of their American accents and philosophies, even gotten completely lost in the drastically different infrastructure of Mexico.

“I do feel more American than Mexican,” Jazmin explains, unconsciously using the tics of American speech:

“Growing up and, like, watching ‘The Magic School Bus’ or ‘Sponge Bob’ or, you know, like, listening to Britney Spears whenever, you know, you’re in high school — and not wanting to admit it later on.

“It’s all these little things that kind of coalesce to make you feel like you have something in common with all these other people of your generation.”


Three Times a Wetback

There were three borders that I had to come across

Into three countries I went as undocumented

In all three instances I had to risk my life

That’s why they say that I am all three times a wetback

—Los Tigres del Norte


In the middle of this 1988 classic, “Tres veces mojado,” bandleader Jorge Hernandez speaks while accordions, drums and bass drive the background:

“In Central America, given both their political and economic situation, there is no other solution for many than to leave their motherland, perhaps forever. The Mexican takes two steps and he’s here. If they kick him out today, he’s back the next day. That is a luxury I can’t give myself without being killed or being taken prisoner.”

I’m disappointed that the panel didn’t feature a Central or South American DREAMer — the first panel in 2011 had a Honduran — because for them the narrative of their struggle is three times more compelling.

And given the recent child migrant crisis, which was actually 50 years in the making thanks to U.S. meddling in Central American affairs, it would’ve been a timely topic.

Cesar reminds the audience, though, that illegal immigration is not just a Latin American issue. In Queens, for example, there are tons of people illegally present from western European countries. Massachusetts has Irish citizens illegally present today, in 2015.


My Two Motherlands

Jose Lopez Bribiesca/La Prensa Libre Young leaders of the Hispanic community in Northwest Arkansas chill with Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas at Burrito Loco restaurant April 9.

Jose Lopez Bribiesca/La Prensa Libre
Young leaders of the Hispanic community in Northwest Arkansas chill with Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas at Burrito Loco restaurant April 9.

Thursday night at the Burrito Loco restaurant. It has been a long day for Erika and Cesar at Springdale High School, talking with the big Latino student body about continuing the DREAM of education. This is pivotal at a time when gangs are infiltrating the school and have claimed the lives of two young Latinos in the last 30 days.

It’s time to wind down with the group that met in south Fayetteville. It now includes veteran Arkansas DREAMers who’ve interacted with Erika and Cesar since 2007. They are catching up on how their journeys have evolved and how DACA has changed their lives for better.

“I feel this country clearly doesn’t want me,” I confess to the six young folks next to me, even though I’ve been blessed with legal documents for 22 years. Every time a permit or a visa is set to expire, I scout the job market in Mexico and gauge what possibilities exist there.

Once my current permit expires, I’m going back if it’s God’s Will, I tell them. I made the decision after years of prayer, introspection and research into the sociopolitical landscape of my motherland. Much of my family is living there, and happily. Even my American-born sister prefers it there.

The pace of life is slower, the cost of living is significantly lower, and my Virgin of Guadalupe is still standing strong, like her followers, even with the drug wars and the ceaseless political corruption.

I go back to thinking what a difference all these young leaders and visionaries would make in the countries of their birth, if they could just adapt to them. What Latin America lacks most is these DREAMers’ style of leadership, one that begins tirelessly from within communities and permeates nationwide.

The DREAMers’ political tact and solid organizational skills they learned here would go a long way there.

Though after meeting them and hearing their stories — and in a way, living their stories myself — I understand their reluctance in doing so. I don’t blame them for fighting to make THIS country better. And to be allowed to call it their country, especially those with no memory of anything but the U.S.


The Emigrant

Maurizio Lorenzetti, 21, sits across from me, wearing a pressed, checkered shirt. He contributed to the panel’s organization, but his participation therein would’ve greatly enhanced it.

He was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and is studying information systems at the University of Arkansas. The Cochabamba Water War of 2000 was one of the many conflicts that created instability for Maurizio’s dad, a banker.

“My father’s sister was working here and she said, ‘Come, we can help you find a job, we can help you with the immigration stuff,’” Maurizio says.

He arrived at Dulles Airport in 2000, aged 7, on a tourist visa. Like Cyndi, Maurizio’s family did all they could with lawyers to stay in the country legally, “then September 11 happened and it became increasingly difficult.”

Maurizio has settled in Arkansas and last summer was one of 45 Time Warner Cable interns working in Washington, D.C. He aided Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

I tell him he could easily fit into Mexico City’s cosmopolitan financial culture and travel the world. Some of Mexico’s bigger cities even have international communities settled and integrated. He begins to smile. He says he’s fascinated by Mexican culture and Mexican women, and even though he’s Bolivian, he has a lot of affinity for my compatriots.

But no matter where I or any DREAMers go, the Red White and Blue will come along, positively affecting the beating of our hearts and minds.


From América, I am

The crowd takes Cesar and Erika to the Dickson Street bars. We settle on 21st Amendment.

Cesar huddles up with some veteran DREAMers. Erika stays at the bar with a smaller group. I ask her where she’s off to next.

It’s home to Arizona, then Nebraska, Arizona again, Nevada, California, back home.

I’m sure many college towns she and Cesar have explored have entertainment districts five times the size of Dickson. Having been in Austin a few days prior, this is a fact.

Erika’s bottom eyelids can’t hide her sleepiness anymore and Cesar’s Paddy DeMarco toughness can’t save him from his tiredness. He remembers his agenda was more relaxed when he visited in 2012.

These last two days were intense.

All the local DREAMers say their goodbyes. Erika gives me a hug and in typical Latino farewell fashion, I kiss her right cheek.

I then go give Cesar a bro hug, but I’d forgotten to ask him something I’ve been dying to know.

“Cesar, one last question before you leave.”


“Yankees or Mets?”

He smirks and looks down at the floor, then looks to me and begins to nod with a wider smile.


Awesome answer. One that only a true, loyal New Yorker would give.

Any dude in Mexico would’ve said Yankees.


Jose Lopez Bribiesca is managing editor of La Prensa Libre, a sister publication of The Free Weekly. He’d like to thank Jeff Winkler and Frankc Berlanga Medina for their guidance.

Categories: Cover Story