Editor’s Note: With President Obama’s Executive Order stopping the deportation of children of illegal immigrants, we highlight one of the “dreamers,” Maria Luna. A self-proclaimed, dream agent, Maria went public about her immigration status and has been advocating on behalf of young people to be allowed to stay in this country, pursue an education and contribute to the country they now call home. The order will halt the deportation of as many as 800,000 children of illegal immigrants and will allow them to obtain work permits. The move was hailed by DREAM Act supporters as a step in the right direction, while assailed by opponents as political pandering in efforts to appeal to Latino voters. The Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president since the 1950s, more than 1 million since taking office in 2009. In light of President Obama’s actions and that the issue will continue to be a political hot topic, we thought Undocumented Fighter: The Inspiring Story of Maria Luna, which Mamiverse first published in April 2012, deserved another run.
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Maria Luna felt glamorous as she sashayed down the runway in her designer pink satin gown last February during Sacramento’s Fashion Week show. But she is no fashion model, rather a self described Dream Agent who participated in the show to turn the bright light of publicity on a cause that is usually hidden in the shadows—the estimated 1.6-2.8 million immigrant youth who long to become American citizens through the passage of legislation called the DREAM Act. “The lights were flashing onto something so painful,” said Luna, who was abandoned in Mexico by her mother and then brought to the United States at three days old by her grandmother. “I felt how ironic, that an illegal immigrant is the center of attention for all of these people who are well off and politically connected.” Will Rodriguez, Co-Producer and Creative Director of Sacramento Fashion Week, commended Maria’s willingness to share her story. “Maria’s decision to be open about her immigration status has really helped drive home the struggles that other students in similar situations currently face,” said Rodriguez. “Here’s a woman who is successful, educated and very empowering; and she has accomplished all of this despite not having something we all take for granted, a U.S. citizenship.” It has been a long and difficult battle, with the first Dream Act legislation appearing nearly 12 years ago and the most recent defeated in 2010. At the time, Congressman Xavier Becerra saluted the so-called Dreamers like Luna for their lobbying efforts, their phone calls and in some cases their hunger strikes to bring attention to the issue. Today there are thousands of members of activist groups like United We Dream and Facebook pages like DREAM Act 2010 which has 96,000 followers. With federal legislation stymied again by this year’s election, most activists are focusing their efforts on individual states.
This week, students marched in New York to pressure Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support a New York DREAM Act. One young demonstrator, Jackie Cinto, urged the governor to include it in this year’s budget, “because the future and lives of hundreds of students about to finish high school are on the line and they can’t wait until next year.” Read more here. Articulate, attractive and relentless, Luna stood next to California Governor Jerry Brown when he signed the California version of the DREAM Act into law this year. She was also held up as an example in January by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Kansas), one of the sponsors of the federal Dream Act. She said when she saw Durbin holding up her picture on the Senate floor, Luna realized the magnitude of her place in history. “I realized it is bigger than me. I was carrying the weight of 2 million other students,” she said. The weight of this struggle is considerable. Long-time immigrant rights activist Jorge-Mario Cabrera received more than 400 hate messages when two Los Angeles area radio talk show hosts gave out his cellphone number on the air and urged their listeners to call him with their opinions on what they labeled the “Illegal Alien California Dream Act.” But Luna said she has found that most people she meets—including the Republican legislators who oppose the DREAM Act—are respectful and come to see her as a “normal” American. And yet, she is not. Her mother crossed the border into Mexico intending to give birth and abandon her. Luna’s grandmother retrieved her and brought her back to Los Angeles where she grew up knowing nothing of her mother’s folly. But when she was 10, her grandmother died and she was sent to live with her mother—a woman Luna said was abusive and cruel. Still, it was not until she applied to college that she found out she was illegal. “When I graduated I realized that my degree couldn’t do anything for me,” she said.
So, when she graduated from California State University of Sacramento in 2010, she ditched the idea of law school in favor of advocating for the federal DREAM Act. Being undocumented means Luna cannot drive, earn a paycheck, buy a house or legally rent an apartment. Maria says she makes a living through scholarships from different organizations for her work. Still, it is usually a fearful place to be where one little slip up or run of bad luck could mean deportation to a country that is not home but a strange place. But Luna said she is unafraid about speaking out. What she fears more is that the legislation will continue to wallow in Congress. Now in the midst of an election season, it is unlikely that legislators will move forward with it. While President Barack Obama has said he supports the Dream Act, he has not been as forceful a champion as some Latinos were hoping. Still, Luna says she has to remain optimistic. And she and others are not going back into the shadows. “They don’t realize that we are here and we are staying here,” she said. “Everything I have been taught about justice and freedom comes from growing up here. America raised me to be a fighter.”