MIAMI -- The illegal immigrants who more than a decade ago were just teens hoping to forge a legal path to citizenship are vowing to make the DREAM Act a campaign issue come 2012, even though they'll likely be too old to benefit if the law ever passes.
The measure that passed in the House on Wednesday is unlikely go anywhere in the Senate, and the House is unlikely to revisit the issue once the new Republican leadership takes over.
Groups like The National Council of La Raza and other Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups know the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform are dim for the time being. So they've turned their attention to a measure that they believe will spark more sympathy from most Americans, bringing with them a coalition of labor groups, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and even Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And come 2012, advocates say, Spanish-language media will be filled with ads slamming lawmakers who voted against the DREAM Act.
"Many of us come from families with mixed (immigration) status. We can't vote, but our families and friends can," said Julieta Garibay, 29, one of the original "Dreamers" who has pushed for the DREAM Act since it was first introduced in Congress in 2001. "Our allies will remember who voted, and how they voted, and will hold them accountable in 2012."
The DREAM Act would provide qualified people up to the age of 29 with a path to citizenship if they attend college or join the military, while mandating decades before they could petition for family. An estimated 2.1 million immigrants could be eligible, though it's likely a far smaller number would meet the bill's requirements.
"The DREAM Act is extremely powerful for that reason because it impacts kids who came at a young age, who truly did whatever was asked of them, stayed out of trouble and just want to get educated or join the military," said America's Voice Deputy Director Lynn Tramonte.
Opponents have said it will hurt Americans at a time when the nation already faces 9.8 percent unemployment. Some also decried the age cap of 29.
"Those are pretty old kids," Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, said during the House debate. Smith called the legislation "a nightmare," predicting the U.S. government would be unable to conduct background checks on all those applying.
Garibay, who came to Austin, Texas from Mexico City with her mother when she was 12, now has a master's degree in nursing but is unable to work in her chosen field because of her status. Yet she said she won't fade into the shadows after the vote. That, she said, is the biggest change from a decade ago.
"The first articles in the Spanish media that came out about us, there was a picture in the newspaper. We had these fearful faces," she recalled. "Now, our young students are coming out, saying 'we're undocumented, and unafraid."'
More and more immigrants are taking up the phrase of the gay rights movement and "coming out" about their status, driven by desperation and the Obama administration's shift toward deporting criminals.
In January, a group of Miami DREAM Act students walked from South Florida to Washington, telling their stories to those they met along the way. Students at Ivy League universities such as Brown and Columbia have also spoken up about their illegal status.
And last month, Fresno State University student body president Pedro Ramirez, 22, went public about his status after he was outed by the school paper. Ramirez said he has since received support from as far as away as Tennessee and Maine. The same day Ramirez went public, Jose Salcedo, 19, a student body president at Miami-Dade College, announced he was an illegal immigrant.
Matias Ramos, 24, was brought to Garden Grove, California, with his Argentinean parents on tourist visas when he was 14. They never left.
Ramos, a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, now works for United We Dream, the Washington-based advocacy group Garibay helped found under the auspices of the National Immigration Law Center. Over the past decade, the group has morphed from a few activists to a national network with affiliates in 25 states.
He said he appreciates the backing of the broader immigrant coalition but stressed that students have been pushing the bill for years. "It's simple. This is our lives," he said.
On Thursday, as students fanned out across the Senate to press their case, Ramos organized a Los Angeles phone bank. It and many others across the nation collectively logged 77,000 phone calls to Congress that day. The activists say they could bring the same organization and energy to the next election.
Jong-Min, 30, who asked that his surname not be used because he feared his family could be deported, said the Internet and social networking sites have been a lifeline, helping him find others with similar stories and enabling him to share his own.
"I started to realize it wasn't just about me and my case. I had a social responsibility as well. There were kids who were so depressed (about their future) they were thinking of suicide," he said.
Jong-Min, who came with his family to the U.S. from South Korea when he was a baby, has a college degree but has been unable to find work.
Jong-Min said he has accepted his duty is now to work on behalf of those who are still eligible but said it was painful to hear Rep. Smith's complaints about the age cap.
"We were the original Dreamers when the bill was first introduced in 2001," he said. "They talk about us as being old. What did people expect, that we would stop aging?"