Dream Act activist Benita Veliz speaks during day two of the Democratic… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was a short speech, but when Benita Veliz stepped up to the lectern at the Democratic National Convention, she made history. The 27-year-old from San Antonio became the first illegal immigrant to address a national political convention.
“Like so many Americans of all races and backgrounds, I was brought here as a child,” she told the crowd Wednesday night. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Veliz, an advocate for the Dream Act — legislation that would pave the way for illegal immigrants to legal residency and citizenship if they go to college or perform military service — talked of being a high-achieving student who graduated early from Jefferson High School, becoming a National Merit Scholar, before graduating from St. Mary’s University.
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“I graduated as a valedictorian of my high school class at the age of 16, and I went on to earn a double major at the age of 20,” Veliz said. “I know I have something to contribute to my economy and my country. I just feel as American as any of my friends or neighbors.”
In 2009, she allegedly rolled through a stop sign and was stopped by a police officer. Veliz had a Mexican consular card but no driver’s license. She was booked in jail overnight, and the police contacted immigration authorities. That started deportation proceedings against her. People rallied to support her, but Veliz was ultimately spared deportation after President Obama signed an executive order to halt the deportation of some young illegal immigrants.
“I’ve had to live almost my entire life knowing I could be deported just because of the way I came here,” she said.
In June, the Obama administration announced that it would stop deporting illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Under the policy, such immigrants would be given a two-year renewable reprieve from deportation if they came to the United States before age 16, lived continuously in the country for five years, are students with a high school or general education degree or served in the military. They can’t have criminal records or be older than 30.
The Republican and Democratic platforms couldn’t be more different on illegal immigration.
The Democrats support “enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” while requiring illegal immigrants to learn English and pay taxes. The Republicans oppose any kind of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, saying that it “encourages more law breaking” and that illegal residents deprive American citizens and legal immigrants of jobs. The GOP’s platform also advocates support for state efforts to reduce illegal immigration, citing tough and controversial laws passed in states, such as Arizona and Alabama. The administration has challenged such laws in the courts.
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“In order to restore the rule of law, federal funding should be denied to sanctuary cities that violate federal law and endanger their own citizens,” the Republican platform reads. “And federal funding should be denied universities that provide in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens, in open defiance of federal law.”
Polls show that jobs and the economy — not immigration — are the priorities of the Latino community. But illegal immigration is a tone-setter for many Latinos — including many not directly touched by policies related to the issue. Harsh rhetoric from the right targeting illegal immigrants has soured some Latinos on the GOP.
But in recent years, some advocates for illegal immigrants have had harsh words for Obama. Although the president has talked of his desire to pass immigration reform, under Obama record numbers of illegal immigrants have been deported.
On Wednesday night, though, Veliz thanked the president.
“He took action so that people like me can apply to stay in our country and contribute,” she said. “We will keep fighting for reform, but while we do, we are able to work, study and pursue the dream.”