Connecticut’s ‘Dreamers’: Helping to shape the face of immigration reform

Washington –- The issue of immigration reform is red hot on Capitol Hill and the face of reform has been young people like Patricia Barron, an undocumented immigrant from Uruguay who has learned to lobby like a pro.

Barron, 27, spotted Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a key player in the immigration debate, when she was in Washington last month with a group of young immigrant advocates from Connecticut.

She said she stopped Ryan by asking him to pose with her for a photo, giving colleagues with more lobbying experience a chance to pitch this GOP leader who ran for vice president in the last election.

“Nobody was approaching him and I said, ‘Somebody should approach him and we have to do it quickly,’” Barron said. “(Ryan) gave us his word that he is on our side.”

The mobilization of immigrant youth was born years ago in the effort to win congressional approval of the DREAM Act that would help undocumented students gain legal status.

But now these young people are on Capitol Hill more frequently, in greater numbers and on a larger mission — the overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

Every day groups of “Dreamers” roam the halls of Congress and crowd lawmakers’ offices.

Often in trademark blue graduation gowns, the Dreamers chant “what do we want – immigration reform. When do we want it –now!”

For Barron, who lives in Bridgeport and hopes the immigration bill will open the door to a new life, the involvement in politics has been empowering.

“You can stand up for your rights, even if you are not legal,” she said “You can still fight for something.”

Lucas Codognolla, lead coordinator of Connecticut Students for a Dream, said young immigrants “definitely changed some of the dialogue” about immigration when they lobbied  for the DREAM Act, which wasn’t approved by Congress but eased the way for Congress’ discussion of comprehensive reform.

“It was putting more of a human face on the issue,” he said.

While some of their tactics have remained the same, the message has changed.

Codognolla said immigrant youth pitched the DREAM Act as a way to rectify a situation “that was not our fault,” but a problem caused by their parents’ decision to come to the United States without legal status. Now, Codgnolla said, immigrant parents are front and center.

“We are asking them not to be deported,” he said. “We need a comprehensive immigration bill that does not dehumanize anyone.”

Codognolla, 22,  was born in  Minas Gerais, Brazil. His family came to the United States in 2000 when he was 9.

He benefited from President Obama’s decision a year ago to use his executive power to halt the deportations of undocumented youths and grant them provisional legal status. That allowed Codognolla to study political science at the University of Connecticut in Stamford.

While his personal situation is stable, for now, he said his parents “are another case.”

He hopes to travel to Washington with a group of about 15 Connecticut dreamers after Congress returns from its July 4th break to join groups of young immigrants from across the nation who plan to descend on Capitol Hill July 8-9. 

The Senate has been working for weeks on a comprehensive bill that would tighten border security, overhaul the visa system and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

But most importantly for Codognolla, the bill would provide a way to legal status, and eventually citizenship, for his family and  an estimated 11 million other immigrants in the United States. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center that used 2010 U.S. Census data determined there were about 120,000 undocumented immigrants living in Connecticut.

The immigration bill incorporates the DREAM Act, allowing youth who qualify to apply for citizenship in five years. All other immigrants, including Codognolla’s parents, would have to wait 13 years.

The Senate has voted on scores of amendments to the bill, but those that would have weakened the bill have been defeated. Votes on amendments will continue next week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hopes to have a final vote on the bill.

The immigration overhaul is expected to pass the Senate.

But the GOP-controlled House is another story.

So far, the House has developed a bill that would only crack down on those who have hired the undocumented. Many Republicans say granting a path to citizenship would provide unfair amnesty to those who have broken the law.

To them, immigration reform centers more on more control of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There’s nothing else that matters until we secure the border,” said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga. ”It’s a national security issue. I believe that the only other law we should be passing right now is to make English the official language of America.”

To try to change these views, Codognolla and the other Dreamers who plan to be in Washington next months will focus on House members.

But Codognolla is not optimistic. “I think we will fail in the House,” he said bluntly.

There’s a lot at stake for Barron and her family.

Barron’s family immigrated to the United States in 2002, after she had completed one year of high school in Uruguay.

She graduated from Trumbull High School in 2005. Her undocumented status prohibited her from qualifying for state college tuition or applying for legal aid.

“So I couldn’t afford college,” she said.

Her status also bars her from holding a job.

In 2011, the Connecticut’s General Assembly approved a state-level DREAM Act that allows documented immigrant students who live and attended high school in Connecticut pay in-state tuition at Connecticut colleges and universities.

But Barron attended high school in Connecticut for three years, not the four needed to qualify.

So Barron studied geology online.

“I have a degree, but I can’t use it,” she said.

When she came to Washington in May, Barron witnessed the Senate Judiciary Committee debate that shaped the 844-page immigration bill that would dramatically change her life.

She thinks the presence of Dreamers is the room helped push lawmakers along.

“A pathway to citizenship is all we want,” Barron said.