Benita Veliz, one of the country’s most familiar DREAM Act advocates, helped the Democratic Party make political history in September when she became the first undocumented immigrant to take on a major speaking role at a national political convention.
Veliz’s story rose to national prominence in 2009 when she was arrested near her Helotes, Texas, home in suburban San Antonio, for rolling through a stop sign. She had no driver license and only a Mexican consular card, so police kept her in jail overnight and then handed her over to U.S. immigration officials for deportation.
Veliz’s parents had brought her to Texas from Mexico illegally when she was 8 years old. She went on to become a National Merit Scholar and the valedictorian of her high school class. She received a full academic scholarship and graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
After her arrest for the traffic violation, she made a YouTube video describing her situation and what deportation would mean to her. She knew no one in Mexico, had no family there and had lived most of her life as an American. She knew nothing else. Veliz’s video soon went viral and she became the face of about 1.7 million DREAM Act-eligible young immigrants living in the country.
With public sentiment and attorney Nancy Shivers on her side, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped deportation proceedings against her in late 2011. But Veliz, at 26, still couldn’t get a work permit and the government could change its mind and decide to restart the deportation case at any time.
Veliz has become one of the nation’s most vocal advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, using her story to influence politicians and voters. In the summer of 2012, Democratic Party officials asked her to speak at their national convention in Charlotte, N.C. Part of her assignment was to introduce Cristina Saralegui, the internationally prominent Hispanic talk show host who has endorsed President Obama’s campaign, in part because of his support for the DREAM Act.
What She Told the National Audience
Here is Benita Veliz’s nationally televised speech to the convention: “My name is Benita Veliz, and I'm from San Antonio, Texas. Like so many Americans of all races and backgrounds, I was brought here as a child. I've been here ever since.
“I graduated as valedictorian of my class at the age of 16 and earned a double major at the age of 20. I know I have something to contribute to my economy and my country. I feel just as American as any of my friends or neighbors.
“But I've had to live almost my entire life knowing I could be deported just because of the way I came here.
“President Obama fought for the DREAM Act to help people like me. And when Congress refused to pass it, he didn't give up. Instead, he took action so that people like me can apply to stay in our country and contribute. We will keep fighting for reform, but while we do, we are able to work, study and pursue the American dream.
“President Obama has fought for my community. Now it's my honor to introduce one of the leaders in my community who is fighting for him. From her television show to her magazines to her radio network, she is truly an icon: ladies and gentlemen, Cristina Saralegui.”
In June, President Obama announced a DREAM Act alternative plan in which the government would offer “deferred action” designation to Veliz and other DREAMers. Under the plan, the government would not seek to deport the children of illegal immigrants for renewable two-year periods and allow them to work or study in the country.
Veliz hailed the move as a partial victory for young immigrants like her. But she continues to support efforts to get DREAM Act legislation through Congress so that reprieves for DREAMers are enshrined in law.