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The Original DREAMer Recalls 'All Pervasive' Fear As An Undocumented Child

Jun 20, 2018
Originally published on June 21, 2018 12:56 pm

Tereza Lee is a music teacher and a concert pianist who is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Manhattan School of Music.

But Lee, who was born in Brazil to parents who fled South Korea in the wake of the Korean War, is also known for something else: She's the original inspiration behind the DREAM Act, the legislative effort to provide legal status to undocumented young people.

While news of families separated at the border hit the high notes of a long-standing debate about U.S. immigration policy, Lee recalls her own experience of being an undocumented child and the moment, at the age of seven, when her father called the family to the living room to reveal their "serious secret."

"I didn't really understand what it meant to be undocumented at such a young age," Lee tells All Things Considered. "I just knew that there's a real risk that I would never see my family again."

Nearly three decades later, the childhood memory is still emotional for Lee to recall. Her family's status was hard to grasp at a young age, but realities surfaced as she prepared to graduate high school and explored options for higher education.

At the age of 17, Lee became the first inner-city child to win a prominent piano competition and play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Recognizing her talent, the artistic director of Lee's school encouraged her to apply to some of the nation's top music colleges. Realizing that Lee wasn't able to provide a Social Security number on her application forms, the artistic director urged her to speak to Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Democrat Dick Durbin.

"We started gathering letters of support from everybody I knew and we turned them into Sen. Durbin's office and he said 'OK, I'm going to write a bill for you, it's a personal bill,' " Lee says.

The personal bill soon drew the attention of other undocumented students who approached Durbin, making him realize that he needed to redraft the legislation. The redraft became the early iteration of the DREAM Act introduced in 2001. But the Senate hearing, scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001, was canceled after terrorists attacked the U.S. the day before.

Despite being reintroduced almost every two years since 2001, the DREAM Act has never passed. But the help for undocumented youths it first introduced is now woven into the immigration overhaul visions of both Democrats and Republicans.

Though Lee is an American citizen today by marriage — and a mother of two American children — she continues to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and says that it's important for people to realize that it was the "young DREAMers, undocumented youth" who mobilized and organized around one of the most critical points of today's immigration debate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the traumas of being an undocumented child

When you're that young and you realize you're undocumented and your family can be taken away from you, that kind of fear is all pervasive ... I've shared many stories with my other fellow undocumented friends of the recurring nightmares that we grew up experiencing. We would have visions of paramilitary style raids, police raids taking our families away. Also with that kind of fear comes a deep sense of isolation.

On how Durbin's personal legislative fix for Lee became the DREAM Act

Personal bills usually go by unnoticed and they pass very easily, so we were so excited and some other undocumented students heard about this bill and they would approach him in the parking lot secretly and tell him they're also undocumented, 'Can you write a bill for [us] too?' and Sen. Durbin realized he needed to redraft the bill into a larger bill and that became the DREAM Act.

On how Sept. 11 changed the future of DREAMers

[The] first hearing was set for Sept. 12, 2001. We had 62 votes lined up, it was going to pass and President Bush was ready to sign it into the law and everything was canceled because of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. From then, any immigration-friendly legislation was out of the question and so that day was really what I feel like sparked a lot of fear and that fear was exploited to justify a war on terror ...

On the role of DREAMers in the immigration debate

[Sept. 11] also sparked a movement by the DREAMers who started to bravely come out of the shadows to tell their stories. And the DREAMers were basically leading a national movement to demonstrate and march and support one another and we see that last year, we saw that they actually won public support — 87 percent. So I think that's a very important to address that the young dreamers, undocumented youth came out to organize and mobilize.

NPR's Monika Evstatieva and Jessica Deahl produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tereza Lee is 35 years old, a married mother of two, a concert pianist and the inspiration behind something we have heard a lot about lately - the DREAM Act, the effort to provide legal status to undocumented young people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: This all started - this DREAM Act all started with this young lady, Tereza Lee.

KELLY: That is Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He's pointing to a giant photo, a photo of Tereza with her long, dark hair and glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DURBIN: Korean, brought to the United States at the age of 2, grew up in a poor family in Chicago and had an amazing musical talent, was accepted at the - Manhattan's conservatory of music, the Juilliard School of Music and, because she was undocumented, had no place to go.

KELLY: Senator Durbin first encountered a teenage Tereza Lee back in 2001, and that encounter eventually led him to draft the DREAM Act. Today, almost two decades later, help for DREAMers is a central feature of immigration proposals from both Democrats and Republicans, which made us want to know more about Tereza Lee and her story and what she makes of this moment. I asked her about when she first realized she was undocumented.

TEREZA LEE: When I was 7, my dad called my family into the living room and said he had a very serious secret to tell us and that we cannot tell anyone outside of our family about this and that we were undocumented. And we don't have this paper that says we're allowed to stay here. We have this - we don't have a green card or a citizenship. I didn't really understand what it meant to be undocumented at such a young age. I just knew that there was a real risk that I would never see my parents again. And...

KELLY: It's still tough to talk about all these years later.

LEE: Well, with what's going on in the news right now at the border in Texas - sorry.

KELLY: Take your time.

LEE: So - yeah, but when you're that young and you realize that you're undocumented and your family could be taken away from you, that kind of fear is all-pervasive. And I've shared many stories with my other fellow undocumented friends of the recurring nightmares that we grew up experiencing. We would have visions of paramilitary-style raids, police raids taking our families away. And also with that kind of fear comes a deep sense of isolation.

KELLY: Let me ask you about one other moment before we leave your childhood just to get us to where you are now. This is a moment - I understand you were 17. You were really good at piano already. And a teacher, the artistic director at your high school, said, you need to think about the top music colleges in the country. What happened?

LEE: Right. So I had one big piano competition. I got to play Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And I was the first inner-city kid in Chicago's history to win. So it was a pretty big deal. And...

KELLY: Yeah.

LEE: Ann Monaco, the artistic director of the music school Merit School of Music at that time, she approached me and asked which colleges I would be applying to. And so I told her that I wasn't going to college, and this is the path that I'm going to take; I'm going to become a concert pianist and be a freelancer. And she...

KELLY: And what'd she say?

LEE: She said, that's ridiculous. Everybody goes to college. And so she just handed me 10 college applications right then and there and told me to have them filled out and returned to her. And so that's what I did.

KELLY: This is a good teacher.

LEE: Yeah (laughter).

KELLY: But there were bits you couldn't fill out. I mean, they ask for your Social Security number, which I'm guessing you didn't have.

LEE: Right. So she immediately noticed that my Social Security number was missing in the box. And so I burst into tears, and I begged her to not turn me in to the police because that would risk my family to be separated.

KELLY: She had another idea, too, which was - she said, we need to talk to Senator Dick Durbin, a senator from your home state. And you did. Tell me about what happened. What was that encounter like?

LEE: That's right. So we started gathering letters of support from everybody I knew. And we turned them into Senator Durbin's office. And he said, OK, I'm going to write a bill for you. It's a personal bill, a personal...

KELLY: It was just for you at that point.

LEE: Yes, it was just for me. I had a specific number to it. And personal bills usually go by unnoticed, and they pass very easily. So we were so excited. And some other undocumented students heard about this bill, and they would approach him in the parking lot secretly and tell him that they're also undocumented; can you write a bill for them, too? And Senator Durbin realized he needed to redraft the bill into a larger bill. And that became known as the DREAM Act.

KELLY: So he introduced the DREAM Act. To cut a very long legislative saga short, it has never passed. It's been reintroduced in various versions ever since 2001 right up until this week, where Congress is once again trying to figure out some sort of solution to what to do, how to give legal status to children and adults who are here in the country under the same circumstances as you. Does this moment feel different? Do you feel hopeful about it?

LEE: I'm not quite sure if I feel hopeful. It's been such a long journey - 18 years. The first version of the DREAM Act, which - it wasn't a first version. It was just the version of the DREAM Act. It was introduced in 2001. And the first hearing was set for September 12, 2001. We had 62 votes lined up. It was going to pass, and President Bush was ready to sign it into law. And everything was canceled because of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

From then, any immigration-friendly legislation was out of the question. And so that day was really what I feel like sparked a lot of fear. And that fear was exploited to justify a war on terror, which also sparked a movement by the DREAMers, who started to bravely come out of the shadows to tell their stories. And they were - the DREAMers were basically - they were leading a national movement to demonstrate and march and support one another. And we see that - last year, we saw that they had actually won public support - 87 percent. And so I think that's very important to address - that the young DREAMers, undocumented youth came out to organize and to mobilize.

KELLY: Tereza Lee, thank you.

LEE: Thanks.

KELLY: Tereza Lee is now a Ph.D. candidate at the Manhattan School of Music. The lovely music you're hearing now - she's playing it. And as we heard, she's also the original inspiration for the DREAM Act. Tereza's now an American citizen through marriage with two American kids. She continues to advocate on behalf of DREAMers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.