Inside Out/Dreamers art project drums up support for Memphis' undocumented young people


It wasn’t your typical photo booth.

Students and community members waited in line the cold to pose for a picture at Christian Brothers University on Friday, December 8. 

CBU was the latest stop for the Inside Out/Dreamers project. The traveling photo booth exhibit seeks to boost support for the DREAM Act’s passage by the end of the year. The proposed legislation would grant legal status for Dreamers, or young people whose visas have expired or were brought to this country without proper documentation. It has failed to pass several times.

“We’re a campus that was founded on Lasallian principles. Over 300 years ago, Jean Baptist de La Salle believed very strongly that young people needed to be educated; reach young people where they are and have them make a difference to their communities," said CBU president John Smarrelli, who has campaigned for private scholarships that aid students who are Dreamers. 

"Essentially, why we educate Dreamers on this campus is for that particular reason. We see opportunities for these individuals to make a huge difference to our community."

Related: "Under Trump, CBU will continue to support undocumented students"
 

Organizers of the photo exhibition have already visited over 30 cities across the country. Memphis is one of the later stops, with Washington D.C. the last one on the itinerary. Thirty-five stops are planned.

Organizers of the Inside Out/Dreamers exhibit printed out portraits in large format and displayed the prints outside the CBU cafeteria.The idea is to show the faces of this imperiled community; to hear their voices and stories.

Area leaders, such as Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis and Rondell Treviño, founder and president of Memphis Immigration Project, spoke on behalf of the estimated 1,000 Dreamers in Memphis and their contributions. There are over 2,000 individuals eligible for DACA in Memphis. 

“I’m honored Christian Brothers was chosen to be part of the Inside Out project. But this all comes down to our young people, the future of this country, the future of these individuals, and opportunities for them to contribute as leaders in our society,” said Smarrelli.

The CBU freshman class has over 60 Dreamers. One of those young people is Teresa Escobar. A junior finance major, her family came the U.S. when she was seven.

Teresa Escobar, a junior at CBU, is a finance major with a political science minor. A Dreamer, she shared her story at the Inside Out/Dreamers art installation.

“Now I’m 21. I’ve been here most of my life. It’s not about where you were born but where you are from. I am a Memphian," said Escobar. 

"I urgently want Congress to pass a clean DREAM Act. I believe Congress is here to help everyone. Thanks to DACA, I was able to come to CBU and study political science so I can go to law school. If they take it away, I will not be able to attend law school next year."

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created in 2012 by President Obama by executive order. It grants renewable, two-year permits for young people who pass criminal background checks among other criteria.

In September, the Trump administration announced it was winding down the program. Many of the 800,000 permits expire next year along with the legal right to work. Dreamers could face deportation to countries that are foreign to them.

Democrats are urgently trying to attach the DREAM Act to the upcoming budget. But, any support drawn from moderate Republicans will spur opposition from more conservative forces. Tennessee’s Senators, both Republicans, are opposed to the deal.

“I hear all the time that we are a country of laws, and I couldn’t agree more. But we should be proud to be a country of just laws. There are just laws and unjust laws and outdated laws and dated laws. We have to realize we are fortunate enough to live in a country where the legislative system is evolving,” said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis.

In a dozen polls this fall, respondents favored allowing dreamers to stay in the United States versus deportation by at least 3-to-1, and at times by 4-to-1 or 5-to-1.

In another poll released December 12, 81 percent of Americans, including 67 percent of Republicans, want Dreamers to remain in America.

Nevertheless, Dreamers prospects are uncertain due to the sustained opposition.

“We have to pride ourselves in the fact that our laws can and need to change to reflect our values and our needs as a country,” said Calvo.

Calvo and other supporters of Dreamers have appealed to sway reluctant politicians like Rep. David Kustoff. The first-term Republican represents the 8th district, which encompasses much of Western Tennessee, including parts of Memphis and its suburbs.

“We need to continue to press Congress to change the laws. This is not only the smart thing to do but it is the right thing to do. We’re humans. How can you say ‘No’ and turn your back on people, turn your back on our economy and turn your back on our values as a country,” said Calvo.

According to Latino Memphis, data from the Center for American Progress and the New American Economy backs up their position and indicate $146 million per year will be added to the state’s Gross Domestic Product if the DREAM Act passes.

If half of the DREAM Act-eligible students in Tennessee go to two-year or four-year higher education institutions, that $146 million figure will appreciate to $487 million per year.

If nothing is done, Kustoff’s district will lose $24 million per year in GDP. Tennessee will drop $347 million.

“At a time when facts don’t seem to matter, well they do matter. How do these numbers happen? Every person that lives in Tennessee pays property tax and sales tax. So, this myth that immigrants don’t pay taxes, don’t contribute is completely false," said Calvo.

"Do the math on how many are buying a house, renting an apartment, or going to the grocery store. So, the more people we get in the state of Tennessee, the more people we get in our city of Memphis, the better off we are all going to be."

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