Hector Lopez Knows Too Well What’s at Stake in DREAM Act Vote

As Congress weighs reform for undocumented youth, one college student scrambles to reclaim a life the DREAM Act would have preserved.

By Julianne Hing Dec 03, 2010

Hector Lopez was a blissfully unencumbered college student before this all began. The second year undergrad wanted to study marketing, and worked at a Nike store. His dream was to move to New York after he finished school to move up the ladder at Nike’s headquarters. Lopez coached Little League and played football and basketball. He spent his Friday nights with his girlfriend checking out new places to eat, and on weekends they’d train for 10k races together. Life was busy, but easy. He had no reason to think it wouldn’t continue that way forever.

And then on Aug. 23 this year Lopez was arrested as he was coming out of his house at 7:30 in the morning. ICE agents had been staked outside his home since 5 a.m. waiting for him. "Once I was handcuffed and in their car, the officer said, ‘I have an 11-year-old warrant for your deportation.’ And I said, ‘Well I was nine then so I don’t think that’s possible.’ "

Lopez would later find out that it was indeed possible, and that unbeknownst to him, he was undocumented. Lopez was six months old when his parents immigrated to Portland, Ore., from Mexico. His parents were swindled by someone who promised to file immigration papers for them then but scammed the family, according to his lawyer, and a judge ordered his family deported when Lopez was nine. 

"We didn’t know about the deportation order, none of us knew about it," Lopez said. "I had a work permit, I had Social Security cards, I was going to school, I worked, I had my driver’s license."

Under the current language of the DREAM Act, Lopez would have been eligible to stay in the country. Like the hundreds of thousands of other undocumented youth set to benefit from the DREAM Act, Lopez was American in every sense, except for his immigration status. But whenever the bill passes, should it ever do so, it will be too late for Lopez and many other DREAM Act-eligible youth the country has already deported. 

The DREAM Act is designed to help young people like Lopez, immigrants with a clean criminal record who were brought to the U.S. as minors and raised and educated in the country. It has been around since 2001. Since then, it’s come up for a vote in Congress multiple times, in 2003, 2005 and 2007, and failed every time.

Congress is set to consider it again in the coming days. If it were to pass, it would be only the second bill since 1986 to offer a path to citizenship for the millions who live in America without documentation. This week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer promised to bring up the DREAM Act. A vote is planned for some time next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed a new version of the Senate bill on Tuesday night, which is more narrowly crafted in hopes of winning Republican support. 

Through the years, Congress has steadily chipped away at the original DREAM Act. In its earliest versions, any undocumented youth with a clean criminal record who committed two years to college or to community service would have been allowed to get on a pathway to citizenship. Later, the community service language was replaced by a military service requirement. The most recent version of the DREAM Act changes the wording from "uniformed services," which would include agencies like the Coast Guard, to "armed services," according to Matias Ramos, a DREAM Act activist and founding member of the advocacy group United We DREAM. The latest version of the DREAM Act also brings down the age cap of those who can apply, from 35 to 30 years old, and will further limit the number of those who may benefit from the bill.

Through its many iterations, the DREAM Act has won rich bipartisan support, and today enjoys the endorsement of the Obama administration’s Departments of Defense, Education, Labor and Homeland Security.

And still, 10 years and hundreds of cosponsors later, the bill’s prospects appear slim. Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and Steve King have been the designated DREAM Act bullies this year–Sessions has said the DREAM Act would encourage "a flood of illegal immigration," despite the fact that only those who have been in the country for five years are eligible to apply.

King has called the DREAM Act a "$20 billion giveaway to illegal aliens," despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office yesterday estimated that the DREAM Act would in fact reduce the national deficit by $1.4 billion over the next decade. Other Republicans like Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John McCain continue to run away from a bill they once supported.

It’s not clear how much good Democrats’ capitulation to the right has done, or if it’s increased the bill’s chances of passing when it comes up for a vote next week. While Congress stalls on the DREAM Act, the Department of Homeland Security continues to deport many young people who would otherwise be eligible for the bill, including Lopez.

"I would give anything right now to be sitting in a classroom and have some homework to do," Lopez said from a detention center in Florence, Ariz.

He was deported on Sept. 1. His parents were both arrested later the same day, but Lopez’s mother got a 90-day stay while she works out finding childcare for Lopez’s 15-year-old brother, a U.S. citizen. Lopez and his father shared a cell at the Northwest Detention Center for nine days before Lopez was deported on Sept. 1. Lopez’s father asked that his deportation be expedited so he could join his son, who knew no one in the country.

With no relatives to call and only the most broken Spanish to rely on, Lopez spent his first night in Mexico sleeping on the floor of a bus station in Brownsville.

Once he was reuinted with his father they went to Mexico City. Lopez says he was targeted and attacked. He and his attorney declined to provide details of the attacks as they have filed for asylum and the case is still pending. "I was in fear for my life," he said. "I faced violence and threats from people who controlled the neighborhood." Lopez and his father decided he couldn’t stay in town anymore. "Hiding from the world in a small room for the rest of my life was not much of a life," he said, and so he and his dad snuck out of town early on the morning of Nov. 17 and made their way back to the border, where Lopez had one last meal with his dad before he presented himself to a Border Patrol agent and begged for asylum in the United States, the only country he’s ever known.

That was two weeks ago. He’s still waiting for his asylum interview, which he expects to be a grueling four-hour process. "I’ve already said I’m not going back to Mexico. If they do, it’s just to die, so what’s the point?" Lopez said. Lopez’s attorney Siovhan Sheridan-Ayala said she’s also filed a motion to reopen his original 1997 deportation case, arguing that there were irregularities. They are going to exhaust every option they have to bring Lopez back home, but reversals of deportation orders are extremely rare.

"The clear solution [for people like Lopez] is the DREAM Act because the amount of effort it takes to represent people on a case by case basis, it just doesn’t work," Sheridan-Ayala said. "And, there are so many people who aren’t student body presidents like Hector, but are just as deserving."?

"What I’ve realized is there’s no happy story, ever," Lopez said. "Since being in detention I had an interview on the radio, and people called in and were saying, ‘illegals, illegals,’ all these things, but there’s no happy story."

"Immigration is very unforgiving and very cruel. If they knew what kinds of things they’re putting people through," Lopez said, his voice trailing off.

"I understand that a law was broken for me to be here, but are you going to prosecute someone for something that happened when they were a kid? It’s cruel and not a little unreasonable."