My DREAM Story

My name is Carolina Bortolleto and I’m undocumented, unafraid, and American – a powerful statement, but how did I get to this point?

I moved to the US with my parents from Brazil when I was 9 years old in 1998. We came on a tourist visa and just overstayed.  We flew in to New York on a cold January night (I still remember the first time I breathed the cold air outside – “it tickles my lungs!” I exclaimed), played tourist in Manhattan for a couple weeks and then moved to Connecticut. Many immigrants start off their story with a search for a better life and economic opportunities. Sometimes I’m unsure how to begin my story. Truth is, we moved here because my mom loves the US and wanted to live here; she was tired of Brazil.

Thinking back to those early days here, I recall a strange mix of cheerfulness as I experienced new things and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness- unconsciously morning what I had lost. Slowly we build a life here and although my family has tried to adjust our status countless times, with several lawyers and thousands of dollars, it never works.

I have always known that I’m undocumented, but I didn’t see myself as different from the rest of my classmates. Soon, the reality of my status began to put up barriers. My 16th birthday came and went with no mention of a license or even driving (In fact, I still don’t drive). I began to realize that many other American milestones were beyond my reach, that because of my status, my life would be limited. Soon I would feel my status begin to gnaw away at my self worth and independence.  

I knew that because of my status, I was not eligible for financial aid and in state tuition. But this didn’t stop me from excelling in high school and I ended up graduating in the top 5% of my class.  I still went through the motions of a “normal” student – SATs, community service, extracurricular activities, college fairs, etc. I watched friends get acceptance letters and their excitement as they looked to the future. I applied to a bunch of colleges, just to see if I would get accepted, knowing full well that there was no way I could afford them.  And so I took my college acceptance letters and kept them as mementos of a high school career well done.

I thought it was unfair, why was I being punished for something that I didn’t do? Why couldn’t I have a life like everyone else? But then, my hard work did pay off, I got a merit scholarship from Western Connecticut State University that covered the in-state tuition, although I still had to pay the out of state.

The reality of my status temporarily averted, I threw myself in my studies. By filling all my time with challenging courses, I was avoiding facing the reality of my situation, that upon graduation, I would be stuck. But for the moment, I was busy being a college student. Though I tried not to think about my status, it impacted everything I did: when I had to turn down internships because of no work authorization, when my mom didn’t want to drive me to school because her license expired, when my professors asked me my plans for after graduation and I had no answer.

Being undocumented, you feel like you never really grow up, you can’t get a real job, you can’t drive, you can’t be independent, there’s always something holding you back from the life you believe should be yours. Even as I began college, I resented my situation. But my outlook would quickly improve.

 I found out about the DREAM Act right after I started college in 2006. As soon as I did I went online. There I discovered a vibrant community of DREAMers talking about their situation and their activism in discussion boards. Slowly I started to become more involved and plugging in online. Through facebook, I found out about events in other states and started going.  I heard stories of bright, motivated students who have been unable to pursue their dreams and go to college. Students more qualified than me (valedictorians!) who were working minimum wage jobs or were part time community college students. I was so lucky; I was able to go to a 4-year university full time. I felt a responsibility to speak out for others in this situation, to be their voice when they couldn’t. For me, it’s about fairness. It’s not fair that I got to go to college and others don’t. Why should I be lucky enough and not others? I’m no better than anyone else. We all deserve the same opportunities in life. The dream movement is about more than immigration, it’s about education and social justice.

As I became involved, I felt a sense of empowerment and community. I had found somewhere to belong. After a lifetime of feeling like I had no voice, like I was always dependent on others, like I was an incomplete person, I had found an identity, fulfillment, something greater than myself – I was a DREAMer, I had a purpose, I was empowered . I wanted other undocumented students in CT to feel this sense of empowerment and community.  I decided that I would become more involved in this movement and do what I could to start a group in CT.  Not knowing any other DREAMers in the state, the need to become more involved often kept me up at night. But slowly I connected with other interested students, and we formed our group, CT Students for a DREAM. I feel so privileged to witness and take part in this movement – I can’t imagine what my life would be without it.

Advertisements

The DREAM Act in Connecticut

When you think of the frontlines of the immigration battle, Connecticut doesn’t immediately pop in your mind. Around the country, many have this perception of Connecticut as all country clubbers in J. Crew outfits. And while we may have our share of privilege, this picture is far from the truth about the Nutmeg state. Connecticut is a very diverse state with a large growing immigrant population. I can personally attest to this; my old high school proudly proclaimed that its student body spoke over 50 languages at home. Walk down Main Street in my town and you’ll come across a Brazilian bakery, store, or travel agency every few storefronts.

At times, my town has been on the forefront of the immigration debate – from a heated battle about 287 (g), to a well-publicized national debate on whether our mayors’ attempt to regulate outdoor volleyball games (popular with the Hispanic population) was unfairly targeting undocumented.

But that was back in 2006, and things have calmed down since then. In fact, our politicians have been very supportive of the federal DREAM Act.  In December, both our Senators (Dodd and Lieberman) and our five representatives all voted in favor of the DREAM Act. A few weeks ago, our Senators Lieberman and Blumenthal were both co-sponsors when the DREAM Act was reintroduced. Therefore, our goal in CT has been not to move legislative targets, but to change and mold public opinion. This was our goal when our newly formed group, CT Students for a DREAM, organized CT’s first “coming out” event last December.

A more pressing concern for the DREAM movement in Connecticut has been the CT In State Tuition Bill for Undocumented Students (Bill 6390). The “Connecticut Dream Act” would allow undocumented students to pay In State Tuition in our public colleges if they have lived in CT for 4 years, graduated from a CT high school, and file an affidavit with their college stating their intent to legalize their status. This Bill passed the State House and Senate in 2007 but was vetoed by our then governor. The Bill was introduced again this year and passed a vote by the House a couple of weeks ago. Then, just this past Tuesday, May 24th, after 9 hours of debate (mostly republican amendments in a filibuster attempt), the voting in the Senate began.

A big story in the In State Tuition battle has been the role of us CT Dreamers. When the Bill had a public hearing in the Higher Education Committee back in March, 9 undocumented youth testified in person; this was a big change from the last time the Bill came up in ‘07, when one undocumented student submitted testimony.  Several legislators said that the powerful presence and testimony of the DREAMers really made the difference.

For the past month, our group has been collecting our personal stories and putting together a packet with each Dreamers’ story and photo. A couple of weeks ago during the House vote, my sister, Camila, and I made our way to the Capitol, where we met with several representatives, and gave them the packet of stories.

The Senate vote this week was last minute. We heard about it before 7am and started scrambling to have our little group of CT Dreamers go to the Capital. By early afternoon, 7 of us had made our way to the Capital. Looking around me that day and seeing 7 undocumented youth from CT joking around with each other, giving interviews to the press, and talking with legislators truly filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment. 

CT Dreamers at the Capitol during the Senate debate on In State Tuition Bill
 

We stayed there for 8 hours – thought all the grueling, never ending GOP amendments. Watching the debate, it was clear that not all of the Senators were as informed about the issue as they should have been.  Some republicans made the argument that these students should become citizens before they can get the “In State Benefits”, as if the reason we are not citizens is for lack of want, not lack of possibility. My own Senator McLachlan was stuck on the issue of fairness; that it will be unfair if an American is denied a spot at a university at the expense of an undocumented student.

But these arguments didn’t hold up. Ultimately, with the full support of the democrats, the Bill passed the Senate by a vote of 21-14 as we all cheered and hugged in the chamber gallery. Several of the democrats even personally mentioned some CT DREAMers as they talked up the merits of the legislation. The Bill will now go to the Governor, who will surely sign it, and Connecticut will become the 12th state to have In State Tuition.

Celebrating with Sen Bye and Sen Prague after In State passes Senate

 

Hello world!

This past Sunday, I stepped up in front of over 50 people I had never met at a church social hour – I stepped up, without any notes, and began to tell my story, my story about being undocumented, about moving to Connecticut from Brazil when I was 9 years old, about graduating from college and why the CT In State Tuition Bill is important. I wasn’t nervous, even with nothing prepared beforehand.  I have come very far from the girl whose voice used to shake when she had to give a presentation in front of her class, from the girl whose entire middle school history class burst into laughter after the teacher told her to start her presentation on Belgium again, but this time to speak in her loudest possible voice, and still the back of the class couldn’t hear.

 I have always been a very quiet person, not the kind of person who speaks up or speaks out. In middle school, my twin sister and I were voted “most quiet” – not a distinction that looks good on your college applications. Maybe this quality comes from having a twin sister – when you have a twin, you don’t need to make friends, someone is always by your side.

It’s fair to say that my high school and college classmates and teachers were surprised to see my sister and me on the front page of our local town newspaper at the end of last year, proclaiming our undocumented status and why the dream act is important. Not only because of our shy personality, but because no one would ever suspect that we were undocumented.

Back in high school, I didn’t identify myself as an undocumented student or a DREAMer (having graduated in 2006, I don’t think the term DREAMer was even in popular use back then). Although I have always known about my status, until last fall only a few of my friends knew the truth. Not because I was embarrassed or afraid, it just didn’t seem to define me. I was a twin, a science nerd who loved art classes, an honors student who was very competitive with her grades, I marched with the color guard, and, oh yeah, I had a pet duck (Quaky).

 I knew that my status meant I would face obstacles, but I thought of myself as the same as the rest of my classmates.  But despite living here for most of my life, I was denied opportunities my classmates took for granted. I watched as they got their driver licenses and were finally “free”, but I stayed behind. Like my classmates, I began applying to college. But unlike them, I applied to top colleges just to see if I would get accepted, knowing full well that there was no way I could finance a $40,000 a year education.  Luckily, I was able to get a full merit scholarship from a local state school, Western Connecticut State University, although it only covered the instate tuition and I still had to pay the out of the state tuition. And so I graduated from High School in 2006 in the top 5% of my class with my immediate future all figured out.

The reality of my status averted for the moment, I threw myself in my studies, filling up my college schedule as much as I could with challenging courses and working very hard to get straight A’s, a B+ was unacceptable. By filling all my time with coursework, I was avoiding facing the reality of my situation, that upon graduation, I would once again be stuck, a victim of my status. But it was more than that; I was an undocumented student who went to college full time with a scholarship and didn’t need to have a job, I felt lucky and also guilty – I had no excuse to not have perfect grades.

It was right after I started college that I found out about the DREAM Act. As soon as I did, I went online and there I found this community of undocumented students in discussion boards and facebook. It might seem silly, but I was amazed when I began to read these students’ stories. I couldn’t believe it, they were just like me: they couldn’t drive, get a job, and they were frustrated that after working so hard in high school, they were not where they wanted to be after graduation. As I read the words on the screen, I felt this connection and sense of community.  Although I didn’t know who was writing, where they were from or what they looked like, I knew they were out there. You see, prior to going on such websites, I didn’t know another undocumented student (aside from my sister). In fact, it was only last year, as a 21 year old, that I actually met another undocumented student in person.

And now, a big part of who I am is a DREAMer and I’m proud of it. But I’m more than that (we all are), I’m a college graduate, having graduated from WCSU last year with a B.A. in Biology and minors in International Studies and Anthropology. At this point, I’m also lost and confused; I don’t know where my future is going or what I’ll be doing in 5 years, hell, even 5 months.

But, this does not mean that I’m aimless, now that I’m involved in the DREAM movement, I want to empower other undocumented youth in Connecticut. And that is my main aspiration for the re-introduction of the DREAM Act. It is unlikely that the DREAM Act will pass this year (but you never know, stranger things have happened), but my hope is that this re-introduction will motivate other undocumented students to step out of the shadows and get involved in the DREAM movement. By doing so, these youth will not only empower themselves, but will also become part of a larger community. I started out this post by mentioning my progression, from being someone who doesn’t speak out of turn, to being someone who stands in front of a packed room and speaks without anxiety and with the intention of rocking the boat.  There is nothing more empowering than when the disenfranchised find their voice. Through being involved in this movement, I have found mine and I want others to find theirs.

I’m writing this post as my first assignment as a one of the DreamActivist.org new media interns (honestly, a dream come true). Hopefully I can take the skills that I learn back to my group (CT Students for a DREAM), and help our group become a more organized and efficient group. I also hope to become more involved in what is currently going on in the DREAM movement. My ultimate hope is to begin to build an online presence, and to help other undocumented students feel they are not alone or lost, like so many other online Dream activists did for me.