Isabel Castillo sat on the floor of Senator Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office last July and faced a stark choice.
The Capitol Police had already warned Castillo, 25, and the four other young people with her: it was after 7 p.m., the office was closed and if they didn't leave, they would be arrested.
Arrest meant entering the court system and explaining to a federal judge that she was undocumented because her parents brought her into the U.S. from Mexico illegally when she was six. Arrest could mean being forced to leave Harrisonburg, Va., which had been her home for almost 20 years.
Castillo's mother had cried when she told her what she planned to do before she left Harrisonburg for Washington. Earlier in the day, before Reid's office closed, Castillo's friends and former teachers had come by and urged her to quit the sit-in.
But Castillo and the others had come to ask Reid to put the DREAM Act on the Senate calendar. And they weren't going to leave willingly until he did.
"I was ready to sacrifice everything and put everything at risk because this is how important it is," Castillo said. "I wasn't just doing it for myself. It's for thousands of students around the country who are scared to 'come out' and say, 'I'm undocumented.'"
The DREAM Act, as introduced in the Senate on Nov. 30, would grant conditional legal status to immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally before age 16 if they enroll in college or join the military. It would apply only to those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, from the day the law is enacted, have a high school diploma or GED and have passed a criminal background check.
Click here to see a timeline of immigration policy and Castillo's life.
The bill is being considered by the current lame duck Congress and could be voted on as early as this week.
Meanwhile, Castillo twists in the wind, a college grad barred from many forms of employment, housing, graduate school and travel.
"I'm 25 years old, I'm not 12, and I feel like my life is just passing by through my eyes," she said. "I don't have a stable life. My life's always been in limbo."
The American Dream
"My life with their dad was very sad and we came here to give our children a better life," Castillo's mother, Amparo Zaldivar Fuentes, says between sips of homemade hot chocolate in her Harrisonburg trailer home.
Zaldivar was born in Mexico, the oldest of 10 children. She went to school for only two years because there weren't any schools near her home and she had to help take care of her brothers and sisters.
She got married when she was 17 and started a family of her own. But it was difficult to feed her three children in Mexico, where factory worked paid 100 pesos per day — $8 at today's exchange rate.
"It's barely enough to buy salt, sugar and beans," she said.
In the poultry plants near Harrisonburg she made $8 an hour, and $16 when she worked overtime, which she did often. She stayed until the nightly cleaning crew came in and used harsh chemicals that stung her eyes and throat.
Zaldivar doesn't work in the poultry plants anymore. But says she still has allergies from those chemicals. Castillo said her mother paid income taxes (the IRS issues Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers regardless of legal status), but she can't draw out benefits without a Social Security number.
Zaldivar said she doesn't want benefits. She just wants her children to be able to chase their dreams.
Isabel gets educated
"Our parents brought us here to provide a better future for us, and they always instilled in us to value education, to become someone in life," Castillo said.
She took that advice to heart.
Zaldivar watched her 6-year-old daughter fearlessly speak the few English words she knew to people she met at the laundromat in her new hometown. As the years passed, she saw her bring home ever-larger textbooks full of English words and bury her face in them.
Castillo had an ESL program and a Spanish-speaking teacher in the Harrisonburg school system, where Mayor Kai Degner said 57 different languages are spoken.
Her undocumented status wasn't an issue until she tried to apply for college. She was on track to graduate with an advanced diploma and a 4.0 GPA, but for many colleges that number was no substitute for a Social Security number.
Castillo says it was a tough moment.
"Most of my friends were talking about going to college — that they got accepted here and that they were going here," she said. "So most were excited about going to college and I wanted to go too."
Castillo worked as a waitress for a year, searching for a college that didn't require proof of legal residency and sometimes getting choked up at work because she was so frustrated.
She said "God heard (her) prayers" when she found Eastern Mennonite University, a private school that accepted students without papers, right in her hometown.
"We don't consider a person's status in terms of admission policy," said Deanna F. Durham, professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at EMU. Durham added that EMU traditionally views the treatment of undocumented people as a social justice issue.
Castillo enrolled in 2004. She was unable to apply for federal loans or grants, but a “Local Hispanic Grant” from the college defrayed half the tuition. She asked for help from local businesses and received some small scholarships. The rest had trickled in a few dollars at a time, in tips and birthday money that added up over the years.
“She saved $15,000 or $20,000 since she was six,” Zaldivar said. “She is very thrifty.”
Castillo graduated magna cum laude from EMU with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 3 ½ years.
“She excelled,” said Jane W. Clemens, associate professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University. “She got almost all straight A’s.”
Almost three years later, Castillo still waitresses because most social work jobs require legal residency.
Becoming a "Dreamer"
Castillo is not eligible to gain permanent residency through the usual methods of marriage, work visa or family reunification. Her only option for legalization is to return to Mexico and wait 10 years before applying for a visa.
The waiting-period is written into the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which D.C. immigration lawyer Paul Haar says is unfair to people like Castillo.
“She came here as a child; she didn’t know what was happening; she was brought by her parents,” Haar said. “And what does Congress and the law say? Too bad. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
Castillo wasn’t willing to accept that. She pored through the Internet, looking for a path to legal status. Eventually she connected with a website called dreamactivist.org, run by students lobbying for the DREAM Act.
Driven to start a local chapter, she started sending e-mails to people she thought might be sympathetic to the cause. After three months, Castillo had a group of about 10 members meeting regularly in Harrisonburg and a mailing list of over 100 supporters.
In February, the group put a resolution of support for the DREAM Act before the Harrisonburg City Council, where Castillo agreed to share her status publicly for the first time.
Castillo began to tell her story and her emotions quickly bubbled to the surface. Her voice cracked as she tried to hold back tears. She looked around and saw that other council members were also moved.
The council unanimously passed the resolution.
In a phone interview months later, Mayor Degner said Harrisonburg had already invested tax dollars to educate Castillo and others like her and it only made sense for the city to support a bill that would allow them to use their education in the workforce and pay taxes.
Immigration Policy Center researcher Travis Packer said no one knows how much tax revenue Castillo and others like her could generate if the DREAM Act passed.
“It’s an interesting question, because there are so many facets to what a person contributes to the economy,” Packer said.
Building off the momentum of the resolution, Castillo’s group of 10 morphed into DreamActivist Virginia, organizing rallies at EMU and bringing 150 people to march on Washington with other “Dreamers.”
Then came in the sit-in at Reid's office.
Castillo and four other “Dreamers” walked in wearing graduation caps and gowns on July 20 at 3 p.m. and told the staffer at the front desk they were undocumented students and they were staying until Reid put the DREAM Act on the Senate calendar.
When they refused to sit on the office's couches and instead planted themselves on the floor, some of the staffers got agitated. Castillo said one told the group to “Go target the Republicans.”
As the hours passed, the mood in the office softened. One staffer brought them sodas. When the office closed at 7 p.m. and the Dreamers refused to budge, other staffers tried to convince the Capitol Police not to arrest them.
Castillo and the others were escorted outside and put in the back of a police van while supporters cheered them on. They were taken to a nearby jail and held in a booking cell until the early hours of the next morning.
A few days later Castillo told her story in a D.C. Superior courtroom, all the while thinking the prosecutor or judge might be required to deport her.
Castillo and the others were convicted of unlawful entry, but were not turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were sentenced to one year of probation and $50 in court fees.
Confronting the governor
The close encounter with the courts didn’t deter Castillo from continuing to advocate for the DREAM Act.
When Virginia governor Bob McDonnell announced he would be hosting a town hall meeting at Harrisonburg’s James Madison University, she decided to step forward again.
Wearing her graduation cap and a light blue shirt that read “The Dream is coming,” she stepped up to the microphone and told McDonnell about her academic achievements.
McDonnell turned to James Madison president Linwood Rose and said, “Dr. Rose, would you listen to that, we need more people like this who graduate in three-and-a-half years.”
Then Castillo said she was undocumented and the crowd of more than a hundred people went silent. Castillo told McDonnell that the Harrisonburg council had supported a resolution in favor of the DREAM Act and asked if he would do the same.
“I can’t,” he said. “Because what that does is it basically says to look the other way and not support the law and allow somebody that’s illegally present in the United States to be given the same rights as an American citizen.”
McDonnell and other opponents of the DREAM Act say the bill amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.
“A pathway to citizenship is a softer way of saying amnesty,” said Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
“We think, at FAIR, that (proponents of the DREAM Act) frame it in a soft way. We don’t want to hold citizenship back from anybody, but there are proper ways and avenues to gain citizenship. Granting lawbreaking individuals citizenship is granting amnesty.”
Williamson said FAIR believes that the act is too broad, and that it won’t just be the “Isabels” of the system that benefit.
She noted that illegal immigrants who attended for-profit “commuter schools” or online colleges for two years could also qualify for legal residency under the DREAM Act.
Previous incarnations of the DREAM Act came up for a vote in 2001, 2005 and 2007, but they were always connected to other legislation and failed to pass.
Most recently, the DREAM Act was attached to a defense authorization bill in September that failed to overcome a Republican filibuster. The Department of Defense has endorsed the bill as part of its strategic plan for maintaining an all-volunteer military. According to the Immigration Policy Center, about 14,500 active-duty service men and women in 2009 were not U.S. citizens-- about one percent of the 1.4 million military personnel.
Castillo is banking on the DREAM Act passing this time, and taking a big risk in the process by revealing her status.
“Immigration could place her in removal proceedings at any time,” Haar, the Washington lawyer, said.
“It’s kind of hard to think about that,” Castillo said. “I would love to go (to Mexico) and visit but I don’t think I could go there and live. I’ve grown up here. All I know is the American culture. … I’m just used to this country. This is my home.”