DALLAS, Texas -- Julieta Garibay, 31, has a master's degree in nursing. But Garibay, an undocumented immigrant who arrived from Mexico two decades ago, makes a living as a babysitter.
Like Garibay, Diego Sanchez arrived in the U.S. at a young age. Now he's student body president at a private university in Miami, where the scholarships he's earned for choir and cross country are helping him pay for college.
Paula Zapata, a 26-year-old Colombia native who uses a wheelchair because of a congenital condition, studied communications at the University of Houston. But Zapata, who like Garibay and Sanchez has long lived in the U.S. without documentation, has little chance of becoming a legal resident or U.S. citizen under current immigration laws, severely limiting her job projects and her rights in the country she's spent most of her life.
Now Zapata, Garibay and Sanchez are actively supporting the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to members of the military and students who came to the country illegally at a young age.
The proposal, which was nearly approved by Congress at the end of last year and has now become a focal point in the national debate over immigration, would benefit around 2.1 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute.
And throughout the country, young people have mobilized in support of the legislation.
Last weekend, Garibay, Sanchez and Zapata all attended the national congress of United We Dream, the largest organization of undocumented college students in the United States. Some 450 students from 28 states gathered at the event, held in Dallas, attending workshops and conferences on immigration, education, politics, leadership and civil rights. They also heard from undocumented workers and labor representatives.
Their backgrounds and accents differed, but many people at the conference were the exact type who could benefit from the legislation: Undocumented young people educated in the United States after being brought to the country by their parents. And many emphasized that they considered the U.S. their country.
At the event, some shared stories about their hardships. Others focused on their accomplishments in the U.S. They were among the best students in their states, a few said; they were presidents of student associations and admitted to some of the most prestigious colleges in the country.
Felipe Matos, a national committee member of United We Dream, said the organization planned to focus on more than just the DREAM legislation. Matos said the group is planning voter registration drives, and hopes to focus on comprehensive immigration reform and the recent surge in anti-immigrant sentiment.
Matos, who was born in Brazil, was voted best college student in Florida in 2008 by the American Association of Community Colleges. He participated in a march with three other so-called Dreamers from Miami to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about undocumented students.
"We need to change ideas about us and inspire other youth to be more active," he said.
President Obama has expressed support for the act and immigration reform, and the administration recently announced a policy change that would spare many Dreamers from deportation as Homeland Security instead focuses its resources on deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
According to the policy, the administration has also begun reviewing some 300,000 pending deportations to weed out the "low-priority" cases. Yet the administration's recently released deportation numbers showed the administration hasn't been slow to deport the undocumented tonight: Nearly 400,000 people were deported in fiscal year 2011, a record number, according to the filing.
Though the DREAM Act hasn't succeeded on the national stage, measures giving undocumented immigrants access to public colleges have passed in some states. For instance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, signed a bill in 2001 that allowed undocumented immigrants who are Texas residents to obtain in-state tuition rates.
But those reforms don't affect the young immigrants' undocumented status.
Zapata, now 26, said her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was four.
"If I had legal papers, I would get help for my disability," said Zapata. "There needs to be a change in the ignorance over the situation of thousands of undocumented students, people should know the truth about this movement."