CARBONDALE — Oneida Vargas doesn't even remember Mexico, the country she was born in and from which her mother took her from when she was 16 months old, slipping into the United States.
She didn't think much about what impact that would have on her life until high school: That's when it began to dawn on her that with no legal documentation, she could not go on to college, as she'd wanted to, or even legally work.
On Tuesday night, she shared what it meant to receive status to study and work in this country, legally, under an Obama Administration program called DACA and how her life in this country — the only one's she's ever known — could come to a crippling halt with the Trump Administration's reversal of that program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the reversal of the DACA program earlier in the day Tuesday.
Her voice was among those lifted up at Tuesday's rally at Gaia House, organized by the Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project, calling for local people to contact their representatives to request their support of DACA recipients and urge the president to support passage of the Dream Act of 2017.
Several American businessmen, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, sent Trump a letter, asking him to not eliminate the program. Almost two months ago, in mid-July, the Jackson County Board defeated a resolution that would have designated the county "safe and welcoming" to immigrants. The vote was 6-6, but the measure lacked a clear majority vote for approval.
Right now, the DACA reversal means Vargas can stay in this country and work on a work permit until April 2019, the month before she expects to receive her degree from SIU.
"It's like the Civil Rights of the century," Vargas said.
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and refers to about 800,000 people who are undocumented in this country.
Of that 800,000, about one-sixth are believed to live in the state of Illinois, organizer Marion Adams-Sai said. At least 20 of these Dreamers attend Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
In addition to Vargas and other DACA students and those speaking in support of them, the nearly 100 people gathered at Tuesday's rally heard from Becca Tally, co-chair of SIIRP; the Rev. Sarah Richards, pastor of Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship; and Cindy Buys, an immigration attorney at SIUC who has advocated for immigration rights for local people.
There were no protests of the gathering.
Vargas, who desires to work as an immigration attorney, said she was so vocal at Tuesday's rally because she has nothing to lose.
"Growing up, I knew that I was not born here," Vargas said, "but I didn't really know what that implied or what that meant for my future until I hit high school, and once I hit high school, it was just a lot of uncertainty. But the one thing I knew it was I'm going to college. I'm not sure how I'm getting there, but I'm going to college …"
DACA was introduced when she was a 15-year-old.
"Even though DACA is and was something temporary, for me, it made me feel like I belonged," Vargas said. "It made me feel like I'm accepted, I feel like I can actually be a part of this society and I don't have to go and pretend to be something that I'm not. It allowed me to go and get an education and become a Chancellor's Scholar at this university.
"Now we have to push for something stronger, something that includes more people and not just the 800,000 or the 1.7 million that qualify for DACA. Something that actually helps the majority of undocumented people in this country: 11 million people (who are undocumented)."
Another DACA student, SIU senior cinema and photography student Martha Osornio-Ruiz, agreed.
"It's time to speak up, and start moving forward," Osornio-Ruiz said. "DACA was not a solution to us students. Like everything that comes to an end. Now it's time to start pushing for a reform."
For more information, follow the group on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/SIIRPonDACA.