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Arizona ‘dreamer’: ‘Hard to believe I’m standing in the middle of it all’

29 Jul

PHILADELPHIA — When Belen Sisa was in high school and her friends were landing their first jobs, getting driver’s licenses and making plans for college, she was making excuses.

Sisa, whose parents illegally immigrated from Argentina when she was 6, hid that fact from her friends in Florence.

“People would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you doing it, too,’” she recalled Monday as she weaved her way into the Wells Fargo Arena. “I would say, ‘I don’t have time.’ But really, it was because I didn’t have a Social Security (number).”

Sisa is one of millions of so-called “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who have been shielded from deportation by President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Because of her immigration status she can’t vote, but that hasn’t kept her from participating in the political process. Sisa is at the Democratic National Convention as one of two dreamers serving as pages to the Arizona delegation.

It was an emotional moment for her Monday as she watched a fellow dreamer, a young Latina, and then Michelle Obama address the convention. Their stories reminded her of the pain her family and friends have felt because of Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform.

“For someone who was so scared of participating in anything, and coming out and doing this, it’s pretty hard to believe I’m standing in the middle of it all,” said Sisa, 22, now of Gilbert.

State party officials are unaware of any other state delegations that include dreamers and say the nominations of the women mark a departure from the past. The Democratic Party has named a few undocumented immigrants for official convention roles in an effort to emphasize its commitment to immigration reform, including providing dreamers with a pathway to citizenship.

But Republicans and Democrats are as far apart as ever on immigration and border security.

Last week in Cleveland, Melania Trump talked of emigrating from Slovenia, drawing applause from Republicans.

But the party adopted a platform that calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration and to reverse Obama’s executive actions that shield illegal immigrants from deportation. At the same time, the convention featured individuals whose family members had been killed by illegal immigrants and speakers such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for his hard-line position on the issue.

But here, Democrats are welcoming undocumented immigrants as guests, delegation members and speakers.

The thousands gathered here cheered for Karla Ortiz, an 11-year-old who met Clinton last year and told her she was worried her parents would be deported.

And they embraced Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill, a leading House champion of immigration reform, who spoke against Trump’s characterizations of immigrants as criminals.

In its platform, the party proposes to continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform, help immigrants learn English and become naturalized citizens.

“The Hispanic vote is absolutely critical for Hillary Clinton this year,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“She wants to give them hope about the future, that they can be — eventually — fully functioning citizens of the United States.”

Arizona Democratic Chair Alexis Tameron said the dreamers’ involvement represents the group’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

“We’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk … to show just how inclusive our party is and will continue to be,” she said. “We hope that as a delegation we can provide education to other state parties and the national party.”

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton participated on a panel with other mayors who support of immigration reform. Later, he talked with Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Carlos Sada about Phoenix’s relationship with Mexico.

Clinton has solid support among Hispanics, and so far, she is doing better than President Barack Obama did in 2012 against GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Sabato said. Some surveys place her support among Hispanics around 80 percent, he said, while Obama got about 71 percent of their vote four years ago.

Latinos overwhelming favor Clinton over Trump, Sabato said, and the vote will be critical as she tries to make up for working-class white voters who are peeling off to support Trump.

Sisa initially supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and worked for his campaign in Arizona. But she said she will be urging her family — whose legal statuses include undocumented and legal — to vote for Clinton.

“Even though I can’t vote, I can get 200 people to vote, and that matters,” Sisa said. “Everything can change depending on who becomes the next president. Our voice is starting to matter, and we can have an impact even though we can’t cast a ballot ourselves.”

After graduation from high school, Sisa said she found her path.

She got her first job at 19, working as a receptionist for an immigration attorney in Chandler. Last year, she got her driver’s license.

Now that Clinton will accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, she is optimistic immigration reform will come for those like her father, who remains undocumented.

“What I’m hoping to hear more of all,” she said. “is that things are going to be solved once and for all within the next few years.”