The Brazilian inspiration behind the US immigration DREAM Act

DREAMers know how to survive amid great obstacles, says Brazilian-born Tereza Lee in an interview with a guest blogger. The DREAM Act was reintroduced in Congress last year.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

Despite the fact that US immigration reform is seemingly becoming more of an uphill battle in an increasingly polarized country, support for the DREAM Act – a law which would give immigrants brought to the United States in their youth a path to residency – is on the rise. Though the DREAM Act bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate in December 2010, it was reintroduced last year, and immigration reform advocates still hold out hope that it could pass.

I've written about several Brazilians at the heart of the DREAM Act, including Felipe Matos, one of the United States' top immigration reform activists, and Polyana de Oliveira, a Brazilian who moved back to her country of birth after running out of time for the DREAM Act to pass. But what I recently discovered is that the very person who inspired the DREAM Act is in fact Brazilian by birth.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was one of the senators who wrote and introduced the DREAM Act back in 2001, inspired by Tereza Lee. Tereza was born in São Paulo to Korean parents, and lived in Brazil until she was 2, when the family moved to Chicago. Ms. Lee became a talented pianist and was accepted into some of the top music schools in the country. But since she was undocumented, she was ineligible for financial aid. One of her music teachers decided to search for a solution, and called Mr. Durbin's office to see if he could help. Soon, the DREAM Act was born.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

Part of the reason it took so long for the bill to be considered in Congress was that it was due to be discussed on September 12, 2001; Tereza herself was supposed to fly to Washington for the hearing. Fortunately, Tereza was lucky. She had the fortune to be able to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where she is currently pursuing a doctorate. Now age 29, she married an American and gained residency. But she's still a vocal part of the DREAM Act movement, advocating for others like her.

I spoke to Tereza briefly about her family's journey from Korea to Brazil to the US, as well as her role in immigration reform.

What brought your parents to Brazil?  What brought them later to the United States?
My parents had lost everything – their belongings, homes, and land – during the Korean War and subsequent struggles. They became part of a massive wave of Korean immigration to North and South America. They first moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, and started a small clothing business. Although they were, initially, relatively successful, they decided to move to the US to start over again after almost all of their savings [were] stolen via identity theft. My mother sold her wedding ring in order to buy visas and plane tickets for us, and we moved to Chicago when I was two.  

Once you became a resident, where was the first place you traveled abroad?  Have you been back to Brazil or to Korea?
I've not been back to Brazil, and have unfortunately never been to Korea, but I have been able to visit Germany, France, Italy, and Japan.
Before I even boarded an airplane, though, I really experienced a feeling of vertigo when I received my permanent resident document which allowed me to travel. Although I was, of course, beyond thrilled to finally have documentation, and be one step closer to American citizenship, at the same time it struck me as incredibly bizarre and unsettling that this small, flimsy piece of paper could have such power over my life.  

What's your involvement like with the DREAM movement at present?
I am constantly trying to keep up to date on all the latest news on the DREAM Act. I stay in touch with other DREAMers as much as I can, and have become friends with many of them. I also volunteer occasionally at rallies and events – there are so many here in New York.

Do you think the DREAM Act has a chance of passing anytime in the near future?
Absolutely! Both houses of Congress voted to pass the DREAM Act in 2010, and with only a few more votes to override a filibuster in the Senate, it would have been made law then. I'm no expert on politics, but I know the upcoming election will be very significant for the DREAM Act. On the other hand, my guess is that it's not likely to happen before the election.

What advice would you give to other DREAMers?
Stay positive, both in your own lives and in your communications with others. Being caught between the cracks of the immigration system for years can be enormously frustrating and debilitating, and many DREAMers I've talked to have battled severe depression. I also know, though, that DREAMers know how to survive amid great obstacles and constant fear, and it never ceases to amaze me how many DREAMers have persevered and become valedictorians, star athletes, and leaders in their communities. When we bring our message to the public, anger won't work. We need to focus on the benefits that America will receive from allowing all of these talented people to contribute, and then, once the DREAM Act passes, go out and prove it!

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

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