James Garcia's Dream Act puts the spotlight on the obstacles immigrant children face in the fight for citizenship

Thank God for people like James Garcia. He's a friend and colleague, so it's not hard to sing his praises. But this time, I must do so publicly. The local playwright, journalist, and ASU professor has written a touching new piece of theater called Dream Act, which opens this weekend in Central Phoenix. It's a love letter to brown immigrant children who come to America when they are little, holding hands with their parents. The future appears grand for quite some time, I imagine. But eventually, a day arrives when many of these young people learn their citizenship status rests in a certain limbo.

As anti-immigrant sentiment continues to bubble and burn, I'm left trying to figure out what people do when they realize they are talented and smart but are suddenly cast amidst fear and stupidity.

Perhaps Dream Act can start the tale-spin. Far from coincidence, Garcia's play is only a one-act. But it will be performed twice each night. First in English — then, after a brief intermission, a different cast will perform the same story again in Spanish. (Full disclosure: New Times staff member Julie Peterson performs a role in the English version.)

People can buy tickets for the English or Spanish version. But you can see both for the same ticket price. I've read the script. So I can tell you that this is Garcia's unapologetic attempt to get audiences to hear ripped-from-the-headlines ideas in a language that might be different from their own.

And language is only one uncomfortable issue that the play calls on to be kicked around.

"The knowledge that we have so many undocumented kids graduating from high school. We are in this period in the U.S. that, rather than trying to assist these kids who've come through no fault of their own, we seem to be setting up barrier after barrier against these children and their families," says Garcia.

"It's a heartbreaking thing. They are graduating in an environment where more than half of the Latinos don't graduate from high school as it is, and these kids are!"

The play's namesake, the DREAM Act, refers to the lingering federal legislation that would help undocumented students become citizens of the country in which they were raised. That help, of course, would make them eligible for scholarships, rendering college accessible to a segment of the population that is often shut out of higher education. While the measure is still under consideration by Congress, supporters complain that the initiative keeps getting stuck in legislative quicksand.

This play was inspired by a public-radio story about a homeless UCLA student who is undocumented. "She lives a double life," he says. "Not only is she having to conceal her citizenship, but she also has no place to sleep but the library and she goes to the gym to shower."

As a professor at ASU, Garcia quickly learned that the lives of many of his students mirrored the secretive life of that girl hiding in the UCLA libraries and showers.

"I know of at least more than 200 undocumented students that go to school at ASU. In each one of them is the lead character in my play. Her name is Victoria."

Victoria's is the soon-to-be-classic Southwestern story. She came to Arizona at 2 or 3 years old, perhaps. Her parents came to make their way. She decided early on to go to medical school. But she wound up split apart from her family after her parents returned home. In the play, we learn Victoria's dad lost his job, owing to Arizona's new employer-sanctions law.

As a nod to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories behind Victoria's fictitious circumstances, ticket revenue from the opening-night performances will go to the American Dream Fund Coalition. The money raised will help fund scholarships for ASU's undocumented student body.

What is the American Dream Fund? At the end of 2006, Proposition 300 required that undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition at community colleges and state universities. So, ASU set up a scholarship fund culled from private donations to make up the $12,000 difference per student. The controversial program was called the Sunburst Scholarship and was administered through the ASU Foundation. But funds dried up earlier this year. (Sarah Fenske broke the news in "Dream On," February 14.) For a while it looked as if many undocumented students would have to sit out the 2008-09 school year. But now, private donors have raised enough money for Chicanos por la Causa to revive and proctor the program, now known as the American Dream Fund, for at least another year.

Garcia hopes to raise something more than money with his play. He wants, as cheesy as it sounds, to raise hope for the students. And start a dialogue. To that end, at 6 p.m. on April 13, a bilingual Town Hall-style forum about the DREAM Act will precede the production. Panelists include ASU student Dulce Juarez, immigration attorney Emilia Banuelos, Genie Archuleta with the local DREAM Act support group CADENA, Democratic state Representative David Lujan, and Alissa Ruth of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Let's be clear about Dream Act. There isn't a happy ending, exactly. Garcia doesn't want the story tied with a pretty red ribbon. He simply wants the students like Victoria to know that maybe, to other people in Brown Town, they are not invisible.

Ultimately, the happiest ending of all could actually come this November. All three prospective presidential candidates (McCain, Clinton, and Obama) have pledged support of the real DREAM Act.

In my estimation, that is actually quite visionary.

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Marcos Najera
Contact: Marcos Najera