By ANDY MARSO, MAITE FERNANDEZ, MAGGIE CLARK AND JESSICA MACLEOD
HARRISONBURG, Va. (December 2, 2010)Isabel Castillo remembers the moment she realized she was different from her high school classmates.
"Most of my friends were talking about going to college—that they got accepted here and that they were going here," Castillo said. "So most were excited about going to college, and I wanted to go too."
Castillo was on track to graduate with an advanced diploma and a 4.0 GPA. But at most colleges, that number was no substitute for a Social Security number—proof of legal residency she didn't have.
Castillo's parents brought her to the United States from Mexico illegally when she was 6, but she had lived in Harrisonburg, Va., almost as long as she could remember.
"It was a tough moment," she said. "I was ready to go to college."
Castillo eventually found a college, but her legal status remains a barrier to employment, housing, graduate school and travel. And that fact sparked a desire to change her situation and that of others like her, even if it meant personal risk.
Castillo has risked deportation several times this year, telling the Harrisonburg City Council, a federal judge and even the governor of Virginia that she is undocumented. She broke her silence to lobby for the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and is scheduled to go before the Senate during the lame duck session of Congress as early as this week.
"I'm 25 years old, I'm not 12, and I feel like my life is just passing by through my eyes," Castillo said. "I don't have a stable life. My life's always been in limbo."
The DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is being shepherded to the floor by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It would grant conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and have been living in the U.S. for the last five years, went to U.S. schools, completed at least two years of college or military service, and are of "good moral character." They would have to maintain that status for 10 years before applying for permanent legal residency.
Castillo has no other options for legalization because of the way her parents brought her to Harrisonburg almost 20 years ago.
Castillo's mother, Amparo Zaldivar Fuentes, was born in Mexico and was the oldest of 10 children. She went to school for only two years because there weren't any schools near where she lived and she had to help take care of her family.
"Everything was work," Zaldivar said. "And I got married (when I was 17). My life with their dad was very sad, and we came here to give our children a better life."
In Mexican factories she could earn a salary of 100 pesos, or $8 a day at today's exchange rate.
"It's barely enough to buy salt, sugar and beans," she said.
In the poultry plant where she worked in Virginia, 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 told her kids to study hard, so they wouldn't have to have a job like that.
Castillo took her mother's advice to heart.
"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.
Zaldivar watched her 6-year-old daughter fearlessly speak the few English words she knew to people she met at the local laundromat. As the years passed, she saw her bring home textbooks full of English words and bury her face in them for hours.
"I've seen how hard she tries," Zaldivar said. "Since she was young, since the time she arrived here, Isabel has always been very smart."
Castillo's status was never an issue in the Harrisonburg school system, where Mayor Kai Degner said 57 different languages are spoken.
There was little warning of the brick wall that greeted her when she tried to apply for college.
She worked as a waitress for one year after high school, searching for a college that would accept her.
She said "God heard her prayers" when she found Eastern Mennonite University, a private school right in her hometown that didn't ask for proof of legal residency.
"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.
Castillo enrolled in 2004, but was unable to apply for federal loans or grants. A "Local Hispanic Grant" from the college defrayed half the tuition and local businesses provided some small scholarships. The rest trickled in a few dollars at a time over many years, in tips and birthday money.
"She saved $15,000 or $20,000 since she was 6," Zaldivar said. "She is very thrifty."
Castillo graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in social work in three-and-a-half years.
"She excelled," said Jane W. Clemens, associate professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University. "She got almost all straight A's."
Three years later, Castillo still waitresses because most social work jobs require legal residency.
Under current immigration laws, 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 Castillo and others like her.
"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 last year, looking for a path to legal status. Eventually she connected with a website called dreamactivist.org, run by students lobbying for the DREAM Act.
She started sending e-mails to local people she thought might be sympathetic to the cause. After three months, Castillo had a group of 10 members meeting regularly and a mailing list of more than 100 supporters.
The group put a resolution of support for the DREAM Act before the Harrisonburg City Council in February. Castillo agreed to share her status publicly for the first time.
When she began to tell her story, her emotions overtook her. Her voice cracked as she tried to hold back tears. She noticed that some council members were also moved.
The resolution passed unanimously.
In a phone interview months later, Mayor Degner said Harrisonburg had already invested tax dollars to educate Castillo and others like her and it made sense for the city to support a bill that would allow them to work and pay taxes.
The momentum of the resolution helped Castillo's group of 10 morph into DreamActivist Virginia, which organized rallies at EMU and brought 150 people to march on Washington with other "Dreamers."
Castillo took another, more dangerous step in July. She risked arrest to participate in a sit-in at Sen. Reid's office to persuade him to put the DREAM Act on the legislative calendar.
"I was ready to sacrifice everything and put everything at risk because this is how important it is," she 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.'"
Wearing graduation caps and gowns, Castillo and four other Dreamers walked into Reid's office 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.
The five Dreamers planted themselves on the floor, irritating the staff members, 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 until early 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.
As she explained why she was fighting for the DREAM Act, some in the courtroom began to cry. The judge, Florence Pan, looked up from her file and Castillo said she felt a connection.
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.
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 in August, she decided to step forward again.
Wearing her graduation cap and a 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 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 it amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.
"A pathway to citizenship is a softer way of saying amnesty," said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We think, at FAIR, that (proponents) 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."
Williamson said FAIR believes that the act is too broad, and that it won't just be the "Isabels" of the system that benefit. It could open the door to illegal immigrants of any age, or with questionable college credentials, she said.
Previous incarnations of the DREAM Act came up for a vote in 2001, 2006 and 2007, but they were always connected to other legislation and didn't 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.
Castillo is banking on the DREAM Act passing, and taking a big risk 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."