Immigration Nation

American Dream Conference Recap

by KATY CESAROTTI

From left to right: President Ali Malekzadeh, Imbolo Mbue, Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Juan Escalante and Ray Suarez

From left to right: President Ali Malekzadeh, Imbolo Mbue, Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Juan Escalante and Ray Suarez.

IIn 2006, after a half-decade spent navigating the expensive path to U.S. residency, Juan Escalante’s family became undocumented.

Escalante was a teenager when his family learned that their lawyer had mishandled their case. He remembers sitting in a college admissions office with his mother, listening to a counselor explain his financial aid prospects. Without a green card, he would be ineligible for in-state tuition. Out-of-state fees would triple the cost of attendance.

Juan Escalante, campaigns manager of fwd.us

Juan Escalante

College, and his career ambitions, seemed suddenly out of reach.

“That’s the moment I decided that immigration policy would be the work that I took on,” Escalante told a rapt audience at the American Dream Reconsidered Conference.

Each fall, Roosevelt’s flagship event convenes activists, community leaders and scholars for necessary dialogues about access to the American Dream. This year’s panels turned urgently to immigrant rights. “We have to fight for the world we want to live in and the policy we want to see,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO – West Suburban Action Project. “Even if we have to take little baby steps to get there.”

“We have to fight for the world we want to live in and the policy we want to see, even if we have to take little baby steps to get there.”

— Mony Ruiz-Velasco,
executive director of PASO – West Suburban Action Project

Escalante went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and become a passionate advocate for immigration reform. But as a DACA recipient, his future in the United States remains uncertain. Deportation would mean returning to Venezuela, a country in political upheaval, and leaving a life built over two decades in the United States.

“How much of my life and my humanity and the things that hold me together do I have to sacrifice to eventually reach a piece of that American Dream?” Escalante asked.

Reconsidering the Dream

At the fourth American Dream Reconsidered Conference, 31 speakers from across the nation and the political spectrum came together to discuss solutions to pressing social justice issues.

“The American Dream Conference is a unique gathering that seeks to answer important questions about the nature of the American Dream, how well it is working for all Americans and how we can all help make it a reality,” said David Faris, associate professor of political science at Roosevelt.

Roosevelt President Ali Malekzadeh hopes the conference will deepen the University’s connection to its legacy. When Roosevelt opened its doors in 1945, it welcomed European refugees, Jews and students of color at a time when many institutions restricted admissions based on racial and religious quotas.

Today, as one of the most diverse universities in the Midwest, Roosevelt remains committed to making higher education viable for all qualified students. While the federal government denies financial aid to undocumented students and DACA recipients, the University considers every accepted student for merit scholarships, regardless of immigration status.

“As an institution of higher education that is committed to social justice, it is our responsibility to educate the community, to provide a platform for social engagement and a place to have difficult but important conversations,” said Malekzadeh, who launched the conference in 2016.

Crowd at The American Dream Reconsidered Conference

Panelists wrestled with what Ray Suarez called the “perpetual tension” between America’s promises of opportunity and its reality. “As a person in love with this country as it should be, rather than how it is all the time, my work is to try to make the real live up to the ideal,” he said. The author of Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation, Suarez used his long career as a news correspondent to provide perspective on the history of anti-immigrant sentiment.

During his conversation with keynote speaker Julianne Malveaux, Roosevelt professor Ralph Martire went back even further. Martire opened their discussion with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, which accused King George III of “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

“As a person in love with this country as it should be, rather than how it is all the time, my work is to try to make the real live up to the ideal.”

—Ray Suarez
news correspondent and author of Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation

Quaint language aside, the message feels timely.

“We were breaking away from Britain because they wouldn’t let us open our borders,” said Martire. “America was founded on the principle of wanting immigrants to come to the U.S., to naturalize, to bring their hard work, culture and efforts to enrich our society.”

Malveaux is a noted labor economist and political commentator. She was quick to address the hypocrisy of forced immigration under the Founding Fathers. “As we were accusing Britain of enslaving us, we didn’t have a problem enslaving other people,” she said. Her presentation was peppered with a near-encyclopedic recall of statistics: how many slaves Thomas Jefferson owned (over 600), how much immigrants add to our GDP ($2 trillion), how much they pay in taxes ($11 billion).

“The rhetoric that has surrounded immigration has no basis in reality,” Malveaux said.

At the “Voting Rights and Voter Suppression” session, speakers traced the history of disenfranchisement from the Constitution to current gerrymandering and voter ID laws. Today’s battle for voting access is being waged by organizers like Ami Gandhi, who works with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in communities of color.

“I am the daughter of immigrants and a first-generation voter,” she said. “Even with the relative privilege I have, I’ve been told to go back to where I came from outside of a polling place. I want to do everything I can to address those kinds of instances.”

David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, described voter suppression as the “slow-motion unraveling of democracy.” According to Daley, more 59 million people live under state legislatures where the majority party received fewer votes. In North Carolina, gerrymandered lines divide the nation’s largest historically black college into two congressional districts, both represented by conservatives.

“We have to be constantly vigilant,” Daley said. “This is not going to be allowed to be conducted in the shadows.”

Imbolo Mbue speaking at the American Dream Conference

Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers

Growing up in Cameroon, Imbolo Mbue thought life in America would be like The Cosby Show or Beverly Hills 90210. The United States seemed like a country full of California mansions, free from the inequality she saw in Limbe.

But for Mbue, who emigrated to the United States for college and is now a citizen, the glossy fiction of America has long worn off. “Whatever -ism I saw in Cameroon, it had its twin or equivalent in America,” Mbue said. “Living in two very different countries has made me realize that we cannot look at racism or classism or sexism or any of the -isms in isolation.”

The author spoke about her unique perspective on power and her novel Behold the Dreamers, this year’s One Book, One Roosevelt selection. “The American Dream to me is very personal,” Mbue said. “Freedom, which I believe is what the American Dream is about, can be different for everybody.”

While conversations delved into today’s difficult realities, organizers and nonprofit leaders spoke with hope about new, collaborative social justice work. At the Franklin and Eleanor Distinguished Lecture, Kelly Clements laid out a new comprehensive approach to humanitarian aid and refugee inclusion. As the U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, Clements travels around the globe to hear personally from the people she serves.

“70 million individuals are personally paying the price of war, conflict and persecution,” Clements told the capacity crowd. “There is a crisis, but not because of the numbers — the crisis is in how we respond. And with crisis comes opportunity.”

In every Q&A session, attendees raised their hands to ask how they could get involved. Grace Hahn, a freshman tennis player at Roosevelt, was eager to learn what she could do. “I was really interested in how there were so many displacement issues I didn’t know about, how there’s local action to help them out, and how we can build on that globally,” said Hahn.

“We hope that our attendees leave each session and conversation with the understanding that while change is difficult and painful, it is indeed possible for individuals to influence the shape of the future,” said Faris.

“We hope that our attendees leave each session and conversation with the understanding that while change is difficult and painful, it is indeed possible for individuals to influence the shape of the future.”

— David Faris
Roosevelt associate professor of political science

Bella Filippi (MS IMC, ’20)

Bella Filippi (MS IMC, ’20)

After the conference, in classrooms and online, students reflected on their personal relationship to the American Dream. Bella Filippi (MS IMC, ’20) described how her perspective has changed since she arrived in the States from Venezuela, 12 years after Escalante’s family made the same journey.

“My dream is simple,” Filippi wrote. “I just want to have a chance. A chance to show you, my dear American people, that we are as good as you are, a chance to show you that we make America great.”

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