The teenage girl peers into the camera, ready to divulge a secret.
“All my siblings are documented except me,” says the girl, identified onscreen as Cendy. “I know I have a lot of potential but that I might not get there because my status will hold me back.”
Cendy is one of millions of immigrants who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children—a group known as “DREAMers” by advocates of the Dream Act, a federal bill first introduced in the Senate in 2001 to allow them a pathway to permanent residency. To push for passage of the provisions in the Dream Act, Cendy and others agreed to share their stories on www.thedreamisnow.org, a website launched Tuesday by filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth” ) and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
The project allows young undocumented immigrants to submit videos describing how their lives would change if the Dream Act were passed. Others can also submit posts, including teachers, relatives and friends of the young immigrants, as well as those involved in developing policy around immigration.
The videos will be posted on the website, and Guggenheim will compile them into a documentary film.
“The documentary becomes a living, breathing petition,” Guggenheim told Yahoo News. “These DREAMers are putting everything on the line. When they come out like this, they are saying, ‘I’m ready to risk it all for what I believe.’”
Immigration reform looms large as a legislative priority for President Barack Obama and for Republicans hoping to improve the party’s status among Hispanic voters.
Powell Jobs told Yahoo News the new project was an effort to harness the momentum around the issue and give visibility to the young people who would benefit from the Dream Act.
“There needed to be a demystification—to put a face to these people, to hear the individual stories,” Powell Jobs said in one of the few interviews she has granted since Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.
Powell Jobs told Yahoo News her interest in the Dream Act had been sparked through College Track, an initiative she founded to help low-income and minority students attend college. Many of the students in the program are undocumented.
"They’re our children’s friends. They are people we know. This is a huge national problem that needs resolution,” Powell Jobs said.
The Dream Act would legalize young people under the age of 30 who entered the U.S. before they were 15 and have lived in the country continuously for five years. To earn legal status and eventually a path to citizenship, applicants would have to prove they have no criminal record and either enlist in the military or attend at least two years of college. (Some versions of the bill would require only a high-school degree for the legal status.)
The Dream Act has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats since its introduction even as the two parties have been sharply divided over other aspects of immigration reform. But the bill has never been enacted—the closest it came was in December 2010, when it passed the House but fell 5 votes short in the Senate of the 60 needed to avert a filibuster.
Despite criticism by some immigration rights activists for a record number of deportations during his administration, Obama took other steps last June to offer young undocumented immigrants some legal protections.
Obama announced a program of “deferred action,” directing his administration to stop deporting those under 30 who came to the U.S. before age 16 and have a high-school diploma or have enlisted in the military. Those who qualify can also apply for a renewable two-year work permit.
“They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper," Obama said when he announced the plan in July.
The action did not confer a path to citizenship and was considered only a partial remedy for young immigrants seeking legal status. But it was praised as a step in the right direction by immigration rights activists, even as Republicans claimed it was baldly political and circumvented the legislative process.
After Obama soundly won re-election in November in part by taking 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, Republicans have begun to reassess their position on immigration and, in particular, the provisions of the Dream Act.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a GOP rising star, has indicated he will introduce some immigration reform measures that could include expedited legal status for young undocumented immigrants. But Rubio's earlier proposal to legalize DREAMers did not include a path to citizenship, making it a nonstarter for most immigration rights activists.
Powell Jobs said Rubio’s latest discussion of granting expedited status to young immigrants seemed “reasonable and principled,” but that she wanted to learn more. “The key is to see the legislation once it’s written,” she said.
The young people taping their stories for thedreamisnow.org are unlikely to face legal backlash or deportation because of Obama’s deferred action directive. But they could face other repercussions, like potentially losing their jobs if they don’t yet have work permits.
Cendy, a 16-year-old high-school sophomore from Aurora, Colo., said she was willing to take her chances.
Cendy, who declined to give her last name to Yahoo News to protect her parents, said she agreed to be part of the project in part to dispense with her secret.
“It was a little scary at first,” she said. “But the benefit of coming out, not being afraid anymore, got a lot of weight off my shoulders.”