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Updated: A Teenager's Suicide Spurs DREAM Activists

In the wake of an illegal immigrant's suicide last week, Texas groups urging passage of the DREAM Act are aiming to make sure what happened to Joaquin Luna doesn't happen to other students.

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Updated: 3:30 p.m. 12/01/11

Loren Campos said that any new developments concerning the Luna suicide will not affect the DREAMers’ campaign. Media outlets in the Rio Grande Valley have reported that suicide notes Luna left behind made no mention of his immigration status, leading some to question why the teen took his life. Nevertheless, Campos said he still believes students on the Texas-Mexico border need to be reminded there are others who share in their struggles.

“Our goal with the campaign is to bring awareness to the undocumented student population, [to tell them] that they are not alone,” he told the Tribune today. “We don’t feel like any new developments on Joaquin will deter our campaign’s motives and we will continue moving forward with them.”

Original story:

One evening this week on the sprawling University of Texas campus, a small group of DREAMers — the moniker for undocumented college students lobbying for passage of the DREAM Act — solemnly painted posters for an upcoming campaign. The statement on each was simple: “I am Joaquin.”

It is the title of a famous Chicano-movement poem of the 1960s. The title character speaks of the minority community’s battles and perseverance in an Anglo-dominated society. Now, after last week’s suicide of Joaquin Luna, an illegal immigrant student from Mission, activists in Texas have adopted the phrase to draw attention to undocumented students in Texas who are unable to gain employment, even if they excel in their studies. Many of those students benefit from an in-state tuition law signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 that allows them, as Texas residents, to pay the lower in-state rates at public colleges. The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, would open avenues toward legal residency status for many immigrants who have graduated from high school and have earned some college credit or served in the military.

Luna's suicide has become a rallying point for advocates across the state, including the University Leadership Initiative, a grassroots organization formed in Austin to promote the DREAM Act; United We Dream, which aims to promote higher education for immigrants and natives alike; and the Texas Dream Alliance, an umbrella group that unites individual campaigns across Texas.

High on their priority lists is recruiting activists willing to traverse the Texas-Mexico border in areas like Luna’s hometown of Mission, where they believe outreach and discussion about opportunities for immigrants is lacking. But they face a unique obstacle.

“Many of the organizations in Texas have neglected the border, just because it’s so hard for any of us to travel over there because there is always Border Patrol,” said Julieta Garibay, a DREAMer who earned a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas at Austin. “But we feel now that, regardless of the Border Patrol, we just really need to get something done.” Garibay said she and fellow members hope to enlist what they call "allies" — legal residents or citizens willing to travel to areas DREAMers can't — in order to educate potential college students about opportunities to advance their studies.

Their plan is to expand activities in areas like Zapata, the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo, historically lower-income and underserved areas of the border where students may not be aware of their post-high school options. Media reports indicate Luna aspired to be an engineer, something Garibay said should have been encouraged.

“Joaquin’s story doesn’t need to repeat itself. Maybe he felt alone and like nobody was in his same shoes, and this is something that many of the DREAMers feel,” she said. “If maybe they hear about other people that are going through the process, that are going to college, who are having some part of the American dream, that hope won’t be lost.”

Luna’s suicide has also prompted a flurry of movement from Latino political groups. DeeDee Blasé, the outspoken co-founder of the Tequila Party, a self-described independent movement trying to engage Hispanics, called out U.S. senators who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. In a statement, she reminded officeholders and candidates about the projected power of the Latino vote.

“We will not allow the story of Joaquin Luna to go away easily," she said. "We will remember the actions of 2010 when politicians ask for our Latino vote in 2012. It is the responsibility of federal lawmakers to fix the broken immigration system. U.S. Senators get elected to do the job Americans expect of them and to fix broken systems that will benefit Americans and the American economy.”

Blasé, who also helped start the Latino group Somos Republicans, left the GOP after the party adopted what she said were “disgusting” and “hate filled” positions on immigration. She received permission to publish Luna’s final essay, called “Fulfilling a Dream in Waiting,” in which the teen wrote about picking asparagus in the fields as a migrant farm worker.

“Dedication, effort and hard work has always been with my family, all done for us children in order to survive in this world," he wrote. "At a young age we were taught to never give up in life and to always keep moving forward no matter the obstacles we face. The toughest job I have ever done was picking asparagus off the fields, in Big Rapids, MI.”

In Austin, Loren Campos, who was brought to Texas from Monterrey, Nuevo León, when he was 11 and earned a civil engineering degree in May, said he knows the chances of seeing the DREAM Act passed before a presidential election is miniscule. Instead, he and fellow DREAMers said their focus is to pressure the Obama administration to grant some relief through an executive order. It would fall in line with the Department of Homeland Security's announcement earlier this year that it would begin reviewing immigration cases in order to prioritize resources on removing criminals and repeat violators of immigration laws. Prosecutorial discretion, the department said, should be practiced in cases that deal with certain groups in the country illegally, including spouses of citizens and students like Luna.

And as much as they criticize the administration’s record deportations (more in three years than the Bush administration deported in eight) they also caution that GOP rhetoric on immigration is as hostile as ever. Adrian Reyna, a government major at UT who is also from Monterrey, said Perry’s in-state tuition law has been widely misinterpreted as a compassionate immigration law.

“It is not immigration bill. We still can’t work, we still can’t get driver’s licenses, we still are pretty much third-class citizens,” he said. “We are pretty much getting back what we have paid for since we have been here. We pay every single tax that every other Texan pays. That’s why taxes are collected, to reciprocate back to people that pay them. It’s a basic concept.”

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