For high school senior Eddie Villanueva, walking the halls of Congress got easier this year.
“This year I don’t have any butterflies,” said Villanueva, an 18-year-old from Vance High School in northern Charlotte, N.C. “Years ago I’d be nervous, but not today. Today, I’m ready to go to war.”
On Thursday, Villanueva was one of nine students from Charlotte-based United 4 the Dream, a Latin American youth advocacy group that travels to Washington every year to talk to lawmakers and lobbyists about immigration, who visited Capitol Hill to reach out to Congress. This was his third trip.
United 4 the Dream, founded in 2010 by three teens, is a faction of the Latin American Coalition, a statewide immigration rights organization. The coalition traveled to Washington this week for its Keeping Families Together campaign, a bus tour that overlapped with the National Council of La Raza’s Advocacy Days, a gathering in Washington to push for immigration restructuring. The council is the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization; the Latin American Coalition is one of its affiliates.
United 4 the Dream’s mission Thursday was to meet with Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from North Carolina. The group of high school and college teens each had prepared speeches for Hudson that would explain why immigration restructuring was important to them.
Upon arriving at the representative’s office, however, the teens learned that he had another meeting at the time they thought they had a meeting with him. They spoke to Hudson briefly in the hallway outside his office instead; only a handful got to share their stories.
Jorge Acosta, a senior at Garinger High School in the central Charlotte area, was one.
He’s an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to the U.S. with his family when he was 2 months old. Last year, he and his father got into a car accident, and his father was deported after the police arrived.
“People told me that I couldn’t go to college because of my status, so I stopped trying,” Acosta said. “Before I came to United 4 the Dream, I wasn’t doing great in school, and now I have A’s.”
Acosta said he planned to continue his education at Central Piedmont Community College. He wants to study culinary arts.
As for his father: “We’re going to try to get him back in a few years, but there’s nothing we can really do now.”
After hearing the stories, Hudson said, “My position has always been that we’ve got to have comprehensive immigration reform. We’ve got to fix the system across the board. . . . Then we can deal with folks like yourself who are here undocumented, and we have to do that with compassion.”
Selene Medina, a freshman at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, had expected more from the meeting.
“I guess it was a good meeting for the circumstances we were under – for a hallway meeting,” Medina said. “All he said is ‘Yes, there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform,’ but not a path to citizenship.”
In a news conference Thursday, National Council of La Raza’s president and CEO, Janet Murguia, urged advocacy groups to keep pushing for immigration restructuring that includes a path to citizenship. Specifically, the council wants a program that allows hardworking undocumented individuals to be able to apply for citizenship in a process that won’t take more than a decade.
“Immigration reform would strengthen not only our communities, but our entire country,” Murguia said. “We’re optimistic, knowing that both sides seem to be open and eager, although the most important thing for us is that a bill is being introduced as quickly as possible.”