Trying to make Dream Act a reality

Even though 800 people had gathered in a house of the Lord, the bishop made a request that usually would be out of line.

“This is going to be the one time in church you’ll be glad to have your cellphone,” Bishop Douglas Miles said as he encouraged members of the crowd to keep their cellphones on, although the reason why was not immediately clear.

The meeting at the Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring was as political as it was spiritual. A blend of faiths and ethnicities banded together two years ago to support Maryland’s Dream Act, which would allow certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. On Tuesday night, people gathered for a final get-out-the-vote rally in an effort to ensure that voters approve the measure in a referendum on Election Day.

Twelve states have enacted laws similar to the Dream Act, and Maryland’s version cleared this year. But this is the first time in the country that such a law needs to be affirmed by referendum. A recent Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of likely voters supported the action, but those numbers seemed to provide little solace to members of the coalition Tuesday night as they listened to tear-inducing testimonies from six young people yearning to continue their education.

They told stories of coming from Latin America and Africa and growing up as Marylanders. They spoke of frustration and hopelessness when they learned that they would have to pay about three times as much as their peers to attend a state school.

Maryland referendum primer

“I want to become a businessman,” said Yannick Diouf, 20, who came to Maryland from Senegal with his family when he was 8.

“I am standing here today in front of you because I feel a call not only for myself, but for my siblings and others in the same situation,” Diouf said. “All my life, I’ve been taught to study hard and to pursue my college education.”

Concerned that the ballot question would be overshadowed by the millions of dollars spent in advertising on ballot questions on gambling and marriage equality, the organizers eschewed commercials and brought the Dream Act to the pulpit.

The Dream Act is often associated with students from Latin America. Miles, pastor of a Baptist Church in Baltimore and chairman of the group that organized the rally, Maryland’s branch of the community organizing group Industrial Areas Foundation, called it a civil-rights issue. For that reason, backers also sought support from black churches and African congregations.

“In this country, what’s legal is not always what’s fair,” Miles said, adding that the university system was once segregated. “That was legal, but it wasn’t fair. And it’s not fair to charge undocumented children triple tuition.”

The crowd roared in applause.

By the end of the event, Miles asked attendees to pull out their cellphones. He wanted them to text or call 10 friends, right then, to encourage them to support the Dream Act.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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