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Undocumented 'dreamer' lives in fear, waits for Congress to act

Nineteen-year-old Erika Toledo Ruiz shares the couch with her younger sister Gloria. They're watching cartoons on a flat-screen TV while their dad rests after his midnight shift at McDonalds.

It's midafternoon, and Erika still has to pick up her mom from her job at a diner in Tucson.

Erika wants to work in the restaurant business as well. She graduated from Pueblo High School in Tucson last year and is saving money to enter the culinary arts program at Pima Community College.

"When I get my diploma, I want to start business management so that I can get my own restaurant," Erika says. "That is my big dream."

But there's one major obstacle.

Erika doesn't have the right papers to stay in the United States legally. She was born in Nogales, Sonora. Her parents permanently moved to Tucson when she was 9. For the past 10 years, she's lived in Tucson.

Her biggest hope right now is that the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act) passes Congress and allows Erika and almost a million other undocumented young people in the United States to continue their education and follow their dreams.

Erika labels herself as half Mexican, half American. "I have been living here in America, but I still have my Mexican roots," she says.

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The last time she went to Mexico to visit family was four years ago. She says she enjoys holidays in her home country but does not want to live there again.

"I am already used to being here and I have a whole new life here," she adds.

DREAM Act introduced in 2001

To help undocumented young immigrants like Erika stay in their adopted home and continue their education, U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the DREAM Act in 2001.

The act would make it possible for illegal immigrants to legalize their status if they arrived before the age of 16, lived in the United States for the past five years and have a U.S. high school diploma. If they complete two years of postsecondary education or military service, they can become U.S. citizens.

If the DREAM Act passes, an estimated 726,000 undocumented young adults could immediately start their path to U.S. citizenship, according to a recent study from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., non-partisan, nonprofit think tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide.

The act has been introduced numerous times since 2001. In September, it was introduced once again as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the U.S. Senate failed to pass it.

If the DREAM Act does pass, with or without comprehensive immigration reform, Erika says her dream may come true.

"We are not criminals," she says. "We just want to keep studying to be somebody in the future and help the country."

Dreamers active in Tucson

Erika is an active member of the "dreamer" community in Tucson. When the Defense Authorization Act was introduced in September, she went to Phoenix to advocate for its passage.

During the demonstration, a counterprotester called Erika a "cockroach" and told her to go back to Mexico.

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"That was the first time that somebody called me cockroach, and I felt so bad that day," Erika says.

But the hostility does not scare her away from advocating for other "dreamers." This month Erika will help campaign on behalf of Araceli Torres-Ruiz, a 20-year resident of Tucson who was arrested along with 10 other people in an immigration raid at a Panda Express in 2008.

Torres-Ruiz is charged with working illegally and identity theft, according to her attorney, Margaret Cowan, who has been in Tucson since 1985 and does consulting work for the dreamers pro bono.

Cowan also meets with Tucson dreamers and their families at Pueblo High School each week to answer legal questions and organize demonstrations and campaigns such as the one for Torres-Ruiz.

In two previous campaigns, Cowan has organized the dreamer community to flood the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with thousands of phone calls, faxes and emails. Cowen says, each time, the department responded and granted deferred action, which means the person is released and gets a work permit.

Another major challenge

The constant low-grade fear of discovery and deportation and the struggle to continue her education are not Erika's only barriers.

Two months before she was supposed to graduate from high school, she started suffering from lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder. On March 17, 2009, she went to the emergency room.

Her kidneys stopped working. She started to retain water and gained an immense amount of weight in a matter of days.

Doctors at the University Medical Center told her parents in front of Erika that she was going to die. "It was like cold water thrown in my face," Erika says.

Erika says her father was furious and told the doctors, "You are going to help her. You are going to cure her because you have to. I didn't hire you to tell me that she is going to die."

The doctors took action.

Erika was in the hospital for two months. "I was crying every day, all night," she says. "It was so, so depressing."

She finally walked out of the hospital on May 25, 2009. Now she owes University Medical Center more than $20,000, and although she has recovered, the 20-inch-long stretch marks on her belly and shins remind her every day of the depressing months in the hospital.

Today, Erika is back to planning her career as an international chef in her own fancy restaurant, but she knows nothing will happen unless the DREAM Act is passed.

Then, she says, "I would be happy not only for me, but for all the people who are waiting for their dreams to come true."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Kirsten Boele/Arizona-Sonora News Service

Erika Toledo Ruiz, an active member of Tucson’s dreamer community, talks to a friend during a meeting at a Tucson church on behalf of another woman who was arrested during an immigration raid.

DREAM Act qualifications

The following is a list of specific requirements one would need in order to qualify for the current version of the DREAM Act:

  • Must have entered the United States before the age of 16 (i.e. 15 and younger)
  • Must have been present in the United States for at least five (5) consecutive years prior to enactment of the bill
  • Must have graduated from a United States high school, or have obtained a GED, or have been accepted into an institution of higher education (i.e. college/university)
  • Must be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application
  • Must have good moral character

Residency requirements

If the DREAM Act passes, an undocumented individual meeting those qualifying conditions stated above, would have to do the following:

1. Apply for the DREAM Act (Since the legislation has not yet passed, there are no specific guidelines on how to apply)

2. Once approved and granted Conditional Permanent Residency, the individual would have to do one of the following:

a. Enroll in an institution of higher education in order to pursue a bachelor's degree or higher degree or

b. Enlist in one of the branches of the United States Military

3. Within 6 years of approval for conditional permanent residency, the individual must have completed at least two (2) years of one of the options outlined in the previous step

4. Once 5 ½ years of the 6 years have passed, the individual will then be able to apply for Legal Permanent Residency (dropping the conditional part) and consequently will be able to apply for United States Citizenship

Those who have already completed at least 2 years of college education towards a bachelor's degree or higher degree, will still have to wait the 5 ½ years in order to apply for Legal Permanent Residency even though you may have already obtained a degree.

Students who do not complete the requirements will be disqualified.