Fifteen college students and activists, including former City Councilwoman Maria Berriozabal and a Methodist minister, were arrested on criminal trespass charges Monday night at the local offices of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison after they refused to leave.
The demonstrators supporting the DREAM Act wanted to speak to the senator and get her support for the bill that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors if they complete two years of college or military service.
They camped out inside the office for more than nine hours, refusing to budge and singing, “We shall not be moved.”
Hutchison, who was en route to Washington, D.C., didn’t want the students to be arrested, according to one of her staffers. But the property owner, Port San Antonio, did.
Several of the students — who wore graduation caps as they were handcuffed — were on the 20th day of a hunger strike aimed at pressuring Hutchison to support the measure.
Among those arrested was My Le, 18, a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“Everyone here is an immigrant, everyone’s ancestors are immigrants,” Le said.
Le was born in Vietnam and recently became a U.S. citizen.
“Honestly, no one here is an alien. No one is green, no one is purple,” she said. “These are people with lives and hearts.”
Hutchison has said she will not support the current bill because it “goes far beyond the intended group of children who grew up in the U.S. and attended primary and secondary schools here.”
Immigration activists are pressuring the White House and Democrats to act on the DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, during a lame-duck session of Congress before the new Republican majority takes control of the House.
President Barack Obama has urged Congress to act on the bill before it adjourns for the year.
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said they want to put the DREAM Act before a vote in their respective chambers.
A vote in the House could come as early as this week, but even supporters acknowledge that passage of the legislation remains an uphill battle.
Still, the chance of a vote is prompting advocacy groups across the political spectrum to step up their lobbying efforts.
“American voters just threw a historic number of politicians out of office for not listening to the public on issues such as illegal immigration,” said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee.
ALIPAC is urging its 35,000 members to contact lawmakers to urge them to vote against the DREAM Act or face consequences at the polls. Meanwhile, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders were calling lawmakers on Capitol Hill in support of the DREAM Act and urging its passage.
Reps. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus support passage of the act.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who is widely expected to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee next year, is opposed to the bill.
Joining Hutchison in the Senate in opposition to the bill is Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“She is being extremely vague,” Pamela Resendiz, 22, said of Hutchison. “A ‘no’ is not enough for us, we need to hear the reasons.”
Resendiz, a UTSA hunger striker who is in the country illegally, was among three students who left the demonstration before police began making arrests.
Resendiz and fellow strikers arrived at Hutchison’s office around 11:30 a.m. to camp out inside.
A Hutchison staffer asked the students to leave. They refused, and a second group assembled outside the office in solidarity at 3 p.m.
Around 8:30 p.m., San Antonio police Capt. James Flavin issued an order to vacate the property and warned demonstrators, including Methodist minister Lorenza Andrade Smith, never to return, on behalf of the owner.
The group outside the office refused, blocking the door. When police returned to arrest them, they went peacefully.
“I cannot match (the students’) courage in putting myself through a hunger strike, but I can put my body here for them,” Berriozabal said.
Hutchison issued a statement saying she “appreciates these students’ passion for their cause but hopes they can find safer and more peaceful ways to voice their opinions.”
The activists say they have been trying more peaceful methods for 10 years, and the act still has not passed. In the meantime, the young adults’ lives have been in limbo, and they are unable to use their college degrees.
Nationally, more than 100 DREAM Act supporters have joined UTSA students in their hunger strike, said Carlos Saavedra of United We Dream, a national coalition of 37 advocacy groups in 25 states.
“People are not asking for (amnesty), but a process for becoming part of this country,” Saavedra said.