During a Dreamers Symposium held at Trinity Washington University in Washington on Oct. 24, some of the more than 100 Dreamers attending the school shared their stories of growing up as undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The school’s president, Pat McGuire, said the Dreamers who attend Trinity “are among our most accomplished students,” excelling in sports, leadership, academics, integrity, and service to others. The student-led “Dreamer Alliance” worked with faculty to create this daylong symposium to educate the school community about an issue affecting so many of its members.

“It was important after Trump rescinded DACA to show in a tangible, concrete way that Trinity stands for justice,” said McGuire. ”…It is important when a community has a group within it experiencing so much stress that we not just comfort them, but also talk (about) action steps.”

“We want to educate you about what we are going through not so you can feel bad for us, but so you can continue to fight with us,” said Daniela Zelaya, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was three years old.

Zelaya and about 800,000 other young immigrants across the country now face an uncertain future after President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program that gave them temporary protection from deportation and provided them with opportunities to do things like get a driver’s license,  attend college and find employment.

Until DACA was passed, these young people had to live in the shadows, often hiding their immigration status from their friends because their parents had taught them not to talk about it.

“You put yourself in a cage because you can’t do the things that you want to do,” such as getting a license or a bank account, said Silvia Medina-Balcazar, who came to the United States from Bolivia when she was nine years old.

Medina-Balcazar said growing up she didn’t know anybody in the same situation as her, and going to Trinity has allowed her to meet people whom she could relate to.

“We have all gone through different situations, but at the end of the day we can all relate, because we know what it is like to not be able to reach for something we want (even) if it is right there,” she said.

Sam Murillo came to the United States from Mexico when she was seven years old, but didn’t know she was undocumented until she was 15 years old and wanted to get a license.

“I felt very discouraged, (but) I realized I just had to work twice as hard to get where I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do,” she said.

DACA changed these young immigrants’ lives, they said, because they were able to come out of the shadows, be honest about their status, and finally be able to do the things that their peers were doing.

“It finally meant that I could do the little things,” said Medina-Balcazar, who added that she now sometimes catches herself taking those things for granted, like being able to drive to the corner store and show her ID. When she does, she stops and reminds herself that the opportunity isn’t something she has always had, and “there are other people who aren’t able to do this,” she said.

It was difficult for many of them to afford to attend college, since many states do not allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition, and they cannot receive federal aid. Bruna Distinto, who came to the United States from Bolivia when she was six years old, said it was “one of the saddest moments of my life” when she realized she would be unable to attend the many colleges she was accepted to.

But after DACA was established, Distinto and many of the Dreamers at Trinity were able to attend college because of the school’s partnership with the TheDream.US scholarship, which provides scholarships for DACA recipients to attend one of their partnering schools.

“Throughout all of this I’ve always tried to stay positive, because not only am I my parents’ rock, but I also have three younger siblings that are watching my every move,” said Medina-Balcazar. “They are my inspiration. Everything I do, I do for them.”

In a morning panel, Christian Penichet-Paul, the policy and advocacy associate for the National Immigration Forum, and Greisa Martinez Rosas, the advocacy director for United We Dream, discussed the legislative proposals that would make DACA more permanent, allowing Dreamers like these students to remain in the country and get on a path to citizenship.

The DREAM Act, which Penichet-Paul said is the most bipartisan of the bills, would allow people to apply for conditional permanent resident status if they arrived in the United States at least 4 years before the enactment of the bill at the age of 17 or younger, and have been continuously present since then.

To qualify, they would need to undergo background checks to make sure they have not been convicted of a crime with an imprisonment of more than a year. They would also need to prove that they had been accepted to an institute of higher education, have graduated high school, or are currently enrolled in a secondary school or GED program. Anyone with DACA would immediately be granted conditional permanent resident status.

After serving in the military for two years, completing two years of college, or working for three years, they could obtain lawful permanent resident status. After maintaining that for five years, they could then apply to be a U.S. citizen.

The Recognizing America’s Children Act (RACA) and the Succeed Act are similar, but would require the recipient of conditional permanent resident status to renew the status for five more years after an initial five-year period, before applying for lawful permanent resident status.

“United We Dream,” the nation’s largest youth immigrant-led organization, is advocating for a clean DREAM Act, meaning that it is passed as written, without any additional provisions about added border security or detention facilities that could potentially harm the families of the Dreamers, said Martinez Rosas.

“This is not some random policy issue, this is about our lives and the people we love,” she said.

Marisela Tobar-Henriquez, who moved to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old, is already well acquainted with the fear that comes with the uncertainty of deportation. Her dad worked as a day laborer for many years, and especially after the number of immigration raids in the area increased, she had to live with the anxiety of knowing he could get detained at any time. Her family would rehearse what they would do if that happened.

“Every day it was a privilege to see my dad again, coming back from work,” she said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the House minority leader who is a graduate of Trinity, told the students at the symposium that she thought a clean DREAM Act had a chance, and encouraged them all to ask Congress to support it.

She also commended the Dreamers on the dignity with which they have already campaigned. It is the way they have conducted themselves, she said, that has drawn the support of the American people – a majority of whom support enacting legislation to make DACA more permanent. She said the way that DACA recipients made their case to Congress was “a model of advocacy for the rest of the country.”

“The ball is in the court of Congress, and Congress must be reflective of the public sentiment,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi said the university makes alumnae of the school proud by protecting Dreamers, and also thanked the Dreamers for “making America dream again.”

“When newcomers come to our countries with hopes, dreams and aspirations, those newcomers make America more American,” said Pelosi.

The afternoon of the symposium included a panel about the way forward with courts, Congress, and organizing on the streets, and another panel about the work of religious communities on this issue, which included Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville; Javier Bustamante, the executive director of the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington; Celia Rivas, a senior paralegal with Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services; and Jeff Chenoweth, the director of capacity building for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

“Your shepherds are with you,” said Bishop Dorsonville, noting the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in supporting and advocating for immigrants and refugees. “…We do care for you because you are the reflection of the face of Jesus Christ. If we don’t find it there, where are we going to find it?”

Javier Bustamante, who came to the United States from Peru when he was 12, spoke about the importance of his church community in accompanying him along his journey, calling the community the “one thing that was constant in my life.”

While he was in college, he got detained by border patrol, and his parish and a local bishop rallied behind him, writing the judge letters on his behalf. As a result, the judge released him without bail.

“Everything I had debated with God as I was locked up in the cell…God was giving me an answer through the witness of all these people who did not see me as one of the millions, but who saw me as a person,” he said.

Bustamante went on to graduate from Georgetown University and get his green card, and now works for the archdiocese, accompanying people in similar situations that he was in, and encouraging others in the Church to do the same. On Nov. 18, the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach is hosting a Dreamers retreat at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, which will be an opportunity for people to gather together in prayer, reflection, and action.

While the work of the bishops is important in supporting immigrants, Bustamante emphasized the need for people to accompany others like his church community did for him.

“A lot of times I hear, ‘Where is the Church?’ I always ask, ‘Where are you?’ Because you are the Church,” said Bustamante. “As long as those of us in the pews are not being that accompaniment, that presence, (it is) not going to make a difference.”

To sign up for the Nov. 18 Dreamers retreat, contact Javier Bustamante at [email protected]