Our first legislative victory: The Inside Story

By Carla Navoa, IYJL Organizer

Editor’s Note: On Monday May 31st the state house voted in favor of passing the Illinois Dream Act (SB 2185), soon to be signed into law. At no tax-payer cost, this bill would create a private scholarship fund for undocumented students, provide trainings for school counselors on opportunities for immigrant youth, all monitored and implemented by a volunteer commission. Carla Navoa, one of the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) organizers that helped with the passage of this bill happen, tells us about this victory.

On Monday May 31st, close to fifty undocumented students and allies gave up their Memorial Day holiday to travel down to Springfield and stake out Speaker of the House Michael Madigan’s office. The youth were demanding that he deliver on his promise to pass the IL Dream Act.

Conversations about creating an IL Dream Act bill began shortly after the US Senate failed to pass the federal Dream Act last December. Senate President John Cullerton, the chief-sponsor of the bill, worked closely with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the immigrant community in drafting the contents of the bill. In collaboration with ICIRR, we have spent the past five months working to gain the support of legislators, university presidents, evangelical leaders, and even the newly elected Mayor of Chicago. We conducted lobby days in Springfield. We organized a “New Americans Rally” with over 1,200 attendees to witness Senate President Cullerton and Speaker of the House Madigan expressing their support of our community and the IL Dream Act. We also made hundreds of phone calls and sent out countless emails and faxes asking our champions to advocate with us.

Our first win came at the on May 4th, when the Immigrant Youth Justice League and dozens of others from the immigrant community sat anxiously in the Senate chambers awaiting the first vote. Our presence there, sitting atop the gallery, showed our unwavering spirit and commitment to seeing the passage of this bill through to the end. The bill passed the state Senate 45-11 with bipartisan support, paving the way for passage in the IL House of Representatives.

Through the Eyes of A Noob:

During the final week of the legislative session, I traveled down to Springfield with a few of the organizers from ICIRR to insure that the IL Dream Act would not fall off the radar of house representatives. We organized a full week of lobbying, bringing a different contingency of DREAM advocates down to the capitol each day to meet with representatives. I had to no idea what I was getting myself into when I volunteered to help coordinate the week of action.

The week was the longest time I’d ever spent in Springfield and the entire time, I felt fully immersed in the political pool. Each morning I dove into action and waded through hoards of lurking lobbyists, harried legislators, and the occasional group of giddy girl scouts and senior citizens marveling at the rotunda’s gilded décor. Beyond the glitz and glamour of our state capitol, intensive work needed to get done to secure votes for the IL Dream bill.

Although the seemingly endless days spent running around capitol building blurred into one another, I’ll recap the highlights.

DAY ONE:

We were somewhere in the ball park of 50-53 votes.With a group of about 70 community leaders and volunteers, we scattered throughout the capitol in search of our target representatives. Once again, I was caught off guard when asked to testify during the hearing of the bill in the Executive Committee meeting. Although I’ve spoken many times to much larger crowds, I felt there was more at stake at this point in the game.

My hands quivered; my palms, drenched in sweat, tore through my hurriedly scribbled talking points as I sat beside Representative Acevedo. I guess we did fine with making our case since the bill passed out of committee 7-4 votes, but still with no Republican support.

On another note ,later that night, I saw first hand how real legislators can be beyond business. We often forget that they’re real people, not some mysterious shadows lording over us. No, they work for US. They have to listen to us, their constituents–the ones who hold the power to elect them or remove them from office.

After we called it quits for the day, the ICIRR organizers and I joined Senator Willie Delgado at a local hotel bar to watch the Bulls vs. Heat game. Now this was a hot spot frequented by legislators and lobbyists alike mainly for its convenient location across from capitol building. I watched as men loosened their ties and women kicked off their heels to unwind, if only for a few minutes in between committee hearings. I tried to contain my laughter at the sight of the senator having had a few drinks shouting unabashedly at the television. This was the real Springfield.

DAY TWO:

I was reunited with members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League who came down the next lobby day. We were fully expecting the vote to happen that day, but given that we were still short a handful of votes, we continued to meet with our targets, tell our stories, and provide the right information and reasoning for the bill.

We fully expected the vote to happen that day, but once again, people playing politics delayed moving the bill forward.

Although the day ended with disappointment and a thunderstorm, I was fortunate to have been invited to the Latino and Black caucuses’ picnic, where I mixed and mingled with more legislators (even ones that I spent the past two days chasing after with no luck). Of course I was the youngest person at the get together, which was for the most part, a 30 and over party. Apart from the suits and expensive wines, I could have sworn this was a frat party.

Interestingly enough, the only other young person there was working on a documentary for Rep. Chuck Jefferson; he interviewed me on the importance of youth involvement in politics, which I absolutely jumped at the chance to discuss! After all, I came to Springfield to fight for the right to higher education for youth in high school.

Organizing Tip: Best time to lobby is when the representative or senator has had time to unwind outside of his/her office with a drink in hand. They’re more willing to listen and converse.

DAY THREE:

Come the third day, I grew extremely antsy. I wanted to get to the vote already so I could home and see my family for Memorial day . But as I spent yet another day with a new group of volunteers, including some as young as seven years old who talked with Speaker Madigan’s staff about wanting to go to college someday, I new I needed to keep pushing through to the end. If not for myself then for these young people below.

When the IL Dream Act didn’t seem likely to happen that day, we returned to Chicago to wait with the intent to return once we knew for sure we would be witnessing the vote. An email was sent out to ICIRR staff saying that Memorial Day would be cancelled, replaced with a vigil at the capitol until IL Dream Act passed the house.

I, along with 50 other undocumented youth and allies, returned to Springfield on Memorial Day. Even though I missed out on barbecuing and sprawling out on the beach on that sunny holiday, I knew I wanted to witness our win. I knew in my heart that all the hard work ICIRR and the immigrant community put into this campaign would come out in our favor. So with minimal complaints, we continued paying our target reps visits as well as thanking our champions. One plan Rep. Acevedo and others proposed to gain greater support for the bill was to ask Speaker Madigan to sign on as chief sponsor. But when he refused, we staked out Madigan’s office. City lobbyists walking by saw us, the DREAMers: a couple dozen undocumented youth in caps and gowns sitting out in the corridor making our plea for the IL Dream Act.

About an hour into announcing our vigil, our group headed to the House Chamber witness the vote. I literally sat at the edge of my seat, leaning as far forward as I could without falling from the balcony onto the floor. THIS WAS IT. With my fingers clutching my phone, ready tweet out the most-to-date news, I saw those beside me, high school students and parents holding hands in anticipation. I had an eerie flashback to last December when I sat in the U.S. Senate chambers to watch as my representative Mark Kirk vote against the federal Dream Act. Not this time around. My representative from my neighborhood Little Village, Eddie Acevedo, was on our side and leading this effort. I watched as he told his colleagues that voting for Dream was “the right thing to do.”

I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t swallow. Not until the bell dinged and voting began. We needed 60 votes to pass it, and when the counter lingered on 59, I thought I was having an aneurysm. The two longest seconds of my life. Then BAM! Green light 61 votes! Bipartisan support! We won! There’s hope here in this state and light in the horizon.

Although there’s still a long way to go in terms of implementing these counselor trainings and raising funds for the scholarship, Illinois paved the way for other states to open up access to college for undocumented youth. I’m lucky to live this state and in the great city of Chicago. Yet, I can’t help but think of my fellow undocumented friends living in states where young people are banned from schools because of their status. Where some move forward, others are pulled backward. All I know is that I remain optimistic in this fight for equality, because even if we have to take blows to the gut every once in while, I know undocumented youth will emerge stronger.

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