IRVING -- Erika Andiola, 24, got tired of being described as a criminal or a burden on the U.S. economy, so she pushed back the only way she knew how -- by openly acknowledging that she's an illegal immigrant.
"It's important for us to have a face to this story," said Andiola, a 2009 graduate of Arizona State University. "A lot of people make our story, and it's false. We have to come out and tell our own stories."
Andiola, who came to this country with her family when she was 11, is among about 450 people attending the third National Congress of the United We Dream Network this weekend. Participants in the three-day event include college students, high school students and recent college graduates.
"We are organizing and advocating for equal access to higher education for all regardless of immigrant status," Cristina Jimenez, managing director of the network, said Friday.
Never miss a local story.
Young leaders of the network, which has 40 affiliates in more than 25 states, gathered in Irving to plan ways to oppose recent anti-immigrant laws in states such as Arizona and Alabama and to advocate for the federal Dream Act. The legislation, pending in Congress since 2001, would give a path to citizenship to immigrants whose parents brought them to this country as children. Applicants would have to complete some college or military service.
The gathering kicked off Friday night with a discussion entitled "The Criminalization of Our Undocumented Immigrant Community." Plans also included a protest and human chain at 9 a.m. today outside federal immigration offices, 8101 Stemmons Freeway in Dallas. The sessions end Sunday.
Jennifer Cortez, a member of the North Texas Dream Team and a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, said many so-called "Dreamers" are working to get the federal legislation passed, but the bill hasn't moved forward.
Cortez, who is not undocumented, said one way to sway allies is for Dreamers to step forward and tell their stories. "They are saying, 'I'm here. I'm undocumented, and I'm getting an education,' " she said.
'Fight or flight'
Jose Perez, a 15-year-old high school student from Alabama, said he was moved to grassroots advocacy work by the harsh anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona and Alabama. In June, the governor of his home state signed into law the toughest anti-immigrant policy in the nation. It affects law enforcement, transportation, apartment rentals, employment and education, including requiring school officials to check the immigration status of students.
That has created fear in his community, Perez said.
He doesn't hide his lack of legal papers -- his parents came to the United States when he was 3.
"I have been thrust into the movement," Perez said. "This forced me to either fight or flight -- fight to stay in my state or flight to leave the state."
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675