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Dream Act Advocate Turns Failure Into Hope

Ohanian Comment: There are a number of important lessons we can take from Isabel Castillo. I suggest this one: "I believe the more public you are, the safer you are."

Wisconsin teachers are showing us that we can be public.

We must be public.

By Michael Winerip

HARRISONBURG, Va. â Isabel Castillo was counting on the Dream Act, and when the Dream Act was defeated in December, it upended her dreams.

âOf course, I cried,â she said.

The Dream Act would have given legal status and a chance for citizenship to people like Ms. Castillo â illegal immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age (Ms. Castillo was 6) and then went on to attend college (Ms. Castillo, now 26, graduated magna cum laude).

âWe came so close,â she said.

She was sitting in the gallery when the House of Representatives passed the bill. And though the legislation had majority support in the Senate â 55 to 41 in favor â 60 votes were needed for cloture and passage.

It was a long drive back to Harrisonburg.

Ms. Castillo returned to small-town life, to getting by without a Social Security card, working off the books as a waitress and living in her basement apartment.

Nothing seemed to have changed, but it had. âI was not the same Isabel,â she said.

No longer was she invisible.

In the previous year, Ms. Castillo had organized the Harrisonburg Dream Act chapter (âHarrisonburg?â asked the national leadership in Washington); led local rallies; and mobilized 75 people to attend a meeting of the Harrisonburg City Council, which unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Dream Act.

She may have received more media coverage than anyone else in Harrisonburg (population 45,000) that year. She was interviewed by everyone from Brent Finnegan of hburgnews.com to the public radio host Bob Edwards.

Recently she was waiting on tables when her BlackBerry rang. âA reporter from Telemundo â they may want to do a phone interview,â she said, before disappearing into the kitchen to pick up two bowls of soup.

Like a lot of the Dream Act supporters, once she came out in the open, she had no intention of going back in.

âAt first, Iâd only allow the media to shoot my face turned away and only my first name,â she said. âAnd then it just progressed. I said, âO.K., use my face and you can say I went to a local university.â Then it was, âI graduated from Eastern Mennonite University and Iâm Isabel Castillo.â â

She could be deported at any time, but the Obama administration seems to have taken a hands-off approach to the hundreds of thousands of potential Dream Act students. In Ms. Castilloâs case, it is as if sheâs coated with a protective shell.

She has stood face to face with several Virginia politicians who want to see an immigration crackdown and told them her status, and yet no one has turned her in. Indeed, theyâve been respectful and friendly. Last summer, at a town-hall-style meeting, she had a long exchange with the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, a Republican pushing for tougher deportation policies. Last month, she testified before a House of Delegates subcommittee full of legislators who wanted to expand police power to round up illegal immigrants.

Because of her Dream Act fame, she is much in demand and has to organize her work schedule around public appearances. Last Monday, she spoke to the womenâs Bible study group at Asbury United Methodist Church; Tuesday she delivered a speech at James Madison University; Wednesday she testified in Richmond before a State Senate subcommittee; Thursday she addressed a luncheon group at the Winchester Rotary Club.

She hopes that if people get to see her close up, she will win them over. âI tell them Iâm a human being living like anyone else, not a criminal. This is Isabel. This is my story.â

Her parents came here to the Shenandoah Valley to pick apples and stayed to work in a poultry plant. In 1991, she was smuggled across the border. The family lived in a trailer park, and Ms. Castilloâs first job as a girl was helping her parents sell tacos out of their home.

She attended Pleasant Valley Elementary, Wilbur S. Pence Middle School and in 2003 graduated from Turner Ashby High School with an A average and perfect attendance record.

To save money for college, she spent a year working seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. at a local restaurant. When she still didnât have enough, she went to local business owners. âIâd say, âDo you have any scholarships or donations?â â she recalled. âOne man gave me $1,000.â

By the time she had finished college, she had no money left, and her prospects were no better than theyâd been in high school. So she moved back to the trailer park, sharing a bedroom with her older sister and her sisterâs son.

She has had opportunities that were denied to others in her family. Her motherâs entire education was at a school in rural Mexico that offered classes only through the second grade. Because her mother doesnât speak English, one of the few jobs she could find here was at the poultry plant, cutting the necks off turkeys and cleaning the giblets.

Asked how she felt about her daughterâs education, she said, âIâm very proud she has something to defend herself with.â

Ms. Castilloâs efforts have had mixed results. In August, wearing her graduation mortarboard, she stood before the microphone at one of Governor McDonnellâs town meetings. (Her comments were captured on video by The Harrisonburg Times.)

âMy name is Isabel Castillo,â she began.

âHi, Isabel,â the governor said.

âI went to the elementary school here, middle school and graduated with a 4.0 G.P.A.â

âWow,â the governor said, and the audience clapped for Ms. Castilloâs 4.0.

The governor joked that in college, he got a 4.0, too â 2.0 the first semester and 2.0 the second.

Ms. Castillo told the governor that she had graduated from college in three and a half years with a degree in social work.

âWow,â he said. âWe need more people like this.â

âBut Iâm undocumented,â she said, and the room went silent.

When she asked the governor if he would support the Dream Act, his tone was kind, but he wasnât swayed. âWhat we canât do as Americans is to turn a blind eye and not enforce the law,â he said, adding, âPeople who come here illegally need to be detained, prosecuted and deported.â

His comments received much louder applause than Ms. Castilloâs 4.0 G.P.A. had.

She has beaten the odds so far and has a buoyant personality â a good thing, given her circumstances. But she has one worry bigger than the rest.

The Dream Act would apply only to people under 30. With the Republicans in control of the House, there is little chance the legislation will pass in the next two years. By then, Ms. Castillo will be 28. âYou realize youâre fighting for your life,â she said.

One recent afternoon, after serving up two bowls of beef soup, she hung her apron in the back and hurried home to change for a speaking appearance at the University of Virginia Law School. She switched from Skechers to four-inch heels and put on a gray pencil skirt and a sweater.

She wanted to make just the right impression, and it took her forever to put on her makeup.

At the law school, she was one of three speakers at a public-interest class and later a student social-action club. It was Ms. Castillo who captivated the students. She was their age, she dressed like them (when they had to look like lawyers rather than students), she spoke as they spoke and had the same quick intellect.

She could have been one of them.

She told the story of being arrested for taking part in a sit-in at Senator Harry Reidâs office. They wanted to know how she could risk being so public.

âI believe the more public you are, the safer you are,â she said.

When they asked how they could make a difference, she told them that in Virginia, each public college can choose whether to admit illegal immigrants as students, and that the University of Virginia is one that does not.

Her message was unspoken, but clear: If she was good enough to speak there, she was good enough to apply there.

The ride home took an hour. She was back before 8. Later that night, she went out to a local cafe, the Artful Dodger. In a tank top and four-inch heels, she danced to salsa music until 1 a.m.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times

2011-02-21

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/education/21winerip.html?ref=education

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