Before leaving for a 14-mile walk from UTSA’s 1604 campus to San Fernando Cathedral Saturday morning, a group of UTSA students and their supporters circled together less than 10 feet away from a statue depicting a family crossing the Rio Grande. The group walked to raise awareness and support for the DREAM Act, a bill proposed in the U.S. Senate that would allow a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are pursuing higher education or military service.
Each of the dozen or so people in the circle took a turn speaking. Most said how proud they were of the other walkers and the importance of their cause. The final speaker, UTSA senior Martha Quintanilla, closed on a pragmatic note. “We may not see results right away,” Quintanilla said, “but we will see results!”
Two hours of light-hearted preparation preceded the huddle. Most walkers were on the fourth day of a hunger strike — the participants would drink only water, juice, and hot tea — so William Wise, a first year pre-med student at UTSA and a participant in both the strike and walk, checked the vital signs of the hunger strikers. He would check again when the walkers were about halfway to their destination.
People were also making signs, burning ceremonial sage, and joking before departing.
“What did you have for breakfast? Pancakes? Sausage?” one of the walkers and hunger strikers, former San Antonio schoolteacher Felipe Vargas, said with a smile to a walker who had decided not to forgo food.
The primary goal of both the hunger strike and the walk was to persuade U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to meet with a DREAM Act supporter. Hutchinson voted for a continuation of discussion on the bill in 2007 before it was filibustered, but against it when it was tied to a defense-spending bill (along with language that would allow gays to serve openly in the military by repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) this year. A Hutchison spokesperson said in a statement to a local television station last week that Hutchison believed “the current Dream Act legislation goes far beyond the intended group of children who have grown up in America” and that the senator hoped that the hunger strikers would “find safer ways to voice their opinions.”
UTSA senior Pamela Reséndiz, a co-organizer of the demonstrations, said that a personal meeting would sway the senator to their side. “I think that we can count on her. The fact that she has voted for it before shows that she understands,” Reséndiz said. “We’re going to continue our hunger strike until we get a face-to-face.”
The walk started in the brush along UTSA Boulevard, went along Interstate 10’s access road and then down Fredericksburg Road into downtown. Fellow students, supporters, and activists joined the walkers along the route, and the number of participants ranged from a dozen to around 20. The group held a few homemade signs, including one that read “Immigration not Deportation,” and chanted into a megaphone in English and Spanish.
“When Pamela’s life is under attack, what do we do?” was the call of one of the many chants.
“Stand up, fight back!” was the response.
The walkers encountered camera crews, cars honking in support, and very few people voicing opposition. At one point, Maria Antonietta Berriozábal, the first Latina elected to San Antonio’s City Council and very nearly SA’s mayor (See “Daughter of immigrants,” Page 21), joined the walkers.
Several walkers said they were excited that UTSA President Ricardo Romo signed the petition and promised to contact Hutchison in support of the bill. Maria Martinez said at the walk that the petition had been signed by over 700 people, and that she was pleased with what had been accomplished during the first three days.
“The hunger strikes and demonstrations show the urgency of the issue — that we can’t take it anymore,” Martinez said. “We’re desperate.”
The demonstrations were put together in a few weeks, and the walk was planned in few days, according to Martinez and Reséndiz. Martinez said that, in light of recent elections, it is necessary to get the bill passed before new representatives take office. “If we don’t get this passed in the next two weeks, then we won’t get it passed for 10 years,” Martinez said.
When the walkers reached San Fernando, they staged a vigil to rally support for the DREAM Act and to remember those that would have been helped had the DREAM Act been passed when it was first introduced. Several local activists and advocates spoke, as did some of the demonstrators. “I myself am a DREAMer,” Martinez told the crowd at the vigil, acknowledging her undocumented status. “This is my last hope. If this does not get passed, I have no future. So it is great to see each and every one of you out here.”
Monday, several the activists met with the staff at Hutchison’s San Antonio office. Martinez, Reséndiz, Quintanilla, and Vargas were joined by John Feagins, a pastor who works for the United Methodist Campus Ministry and who spoke at Saturday’s vigil.
Quintanilla said the 45-minute meeting had not gone well. The goal had been to arrange a meeting between a DREAM Act advocate and Hutchison, but Quintanilla said they were left hanging. “They basically want us to stop, and that’s not going to happen,” Quintanilla said.
Staffers at Hutchison’s D.C. office released a written statement immediately following the meeting restating many of the same points that the spokesperson had made the previous Wednesday, notably that she feels the students should find a safer way to voice their concerns.
Quintanilla responded to the suggestion for utilizing different methods with exasperation. “People have tried this for the past 10 years, to get dialogue with the senator. I don’t know why it’s so difficult!”
“We’ve done everything!” Vargas said Saturday. “We’ve called! We’ve written letters!”
In a prepared release, U.S. Senator John Cornyn told the Current he “has a great deal of sympathy for the plight of children who have no moral culpability for being in this county illegally.” That he supported immigration reform that would allow the students to “complete their education and have the opportunity to be successful and use their many talents to contribute positively to society.” However, Cornyn voted to table the bill in 2007 and against the bill containing DREAM Act provisions earlier this year.
Quintanilla said the demonstrations would continue until Hutchison agrees to see an advocate. The group seeks a meeting with the senator before Thanksgiving. Quintanilla said that they are getting impatient. “If we don’t get anything anytime soon, we are escalating the demonstrations,” he said.
After Monday’s failed meeting, some of the DREAM Act supporters at Hutchison’s office discussed moving toward civil disobedience and possibly being arrested in the politician’s offices as a part of the effort.
The members of Dream Act Now! and their supporters are adamant that there is promise in their actions. The hunger strikers insist that they will continue to forgo food until they are able to talk with Hutchison. Some looked even further in to the future. “This is our generation. There will be another generation after us if this does not pass,” Quintanilla said. “We know Congress is back again in January, and as long as it is on the agenda, we will have hope.” •