DENTON, Texas -- Juana Perez is a bilingual education major and the president of a campus organization that raises awareness about the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would enable certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors to apply for permanent residency.
She is also undocumented.
In honor of the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday on Nov. 1 that celebrates life and death, Perez dedicated an altar this week to the "Dreamers," those students unable attend college because they are undocumented. Her motto: "Education, not deportation."
The celebration of the holiday at the University of North Texas -- the fourth largest university in the state, with 36,000 students, including 5,000 Latinos -- echoed a growing sentiment among Latino students: immigrant children who succeed in school should be given a chance to repay the investment in their education.
Perez, a petite young woman brought to the U.S. by her parents from Mexico, placed crosses at the altar with the names of young people who died trying to cross the border into the United States. She lit candles in honor of "Dreamers" caught up in deportation proceedings, and those who have died in detention centers for lack of medical services.
"We never give up trying to educate others about the DREAM Act and how important it is," said Perez, adding that the proposed law would not only benefit Latinos but also young people of all nationalities.
The long-standing DREAM legislation, an un-passed bill that would grant some undocumented students legal status in return for two years of college or military service, has become a focal point of the heated immigration debate.
President Obama has expressed support for the DREAM Act and immigration reform, with the administration recently announcing a policy change that would spare many "Dreamers" from deportation as enforcement is focused on undocumented immigrants with criminal records, rather than young people or students. According to the policy, the administration has also begun reviewing more than 300,000 deportation proceedings to weed out the "low-priority" cases. Yet, the administration also recently released its latest deportation numbers, which showed a record number of nearly 400,000 deportations in fiscal year 2011, which ended in September.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has supported undocumented students, signing a bill as governor that allowed undocumented immigrants who are Texas residents to obtain in-state tuition rates.
Still, students have become an active and vocal force in pushing for immigration reform, attending DREAM Act hearings and rallying across the country.
At the University of North Texas, professors of Mexican-American studies, history and anthropology asked students to prepare altars that spoke to social issues affecting the Latino community. The theme: "Knowledge is power."
"It was a cultural exercise that echoes the demographic reality of Hispanics in Texas," said Roberto Calderon, who teaches history and Mexican-American studies.
The campus-wide celebration included a procession of altars honoring Chicano professors, family members killed on 9/11, the DREAM Act and "Dreamers."
The traditional altars were decorated with skulls, flowers, candles, religious icons, food, portraits of loved ones and admired public figures. The students shared Mexican sweet bread and churros, a fried-dough pastry, amid music and dancing.
"This enduring tradition promotes an exchange between different ethnic traditions and gives shape to our own culture," Calderon said. More Latino students receive a college education in this suburb north of Dallas than in the city and Forth Worth combined, he added.
This year, more students participated in the university's three-year-old Day of the Dead celebration than in the past, Calderon said.
"Exclusion and opposition are no longer viable in our society, as new communities gain more power and presence," he said.
Favian Rios, a member of the Lambda Theta Phil fraternity and a criminal justice major, dedicated an altar to the undocumented students missing from college classrooms.
"We hope that the university and the community might take notice of our participation, that we are proud of our heritage, and break stereotypes about Latinos," Rios said.
"We wanted to express that we are in touch with our traditions, that we haven't forgotten that we are Latinos in a country where our identities can be forgotten," said Elizabeth Guevara, also a criminal justice major.
Anthropology Professor Mariela Nuñez-Janes, said the celebration was intended to, "send the message to educators that our Hispanic culture is important in places of higher education."