Meet Tereza Lee, the Undocumented Immigrant Who Inspired the DREAM Act


At the age of seven, Tereza Lee’s father sat her down in the living room and told her he had something very important to tell her. Don’t tell anyone, he told her, not even teachers or her closest friends. She was supposed to keep her mouth closed. Don’t say anything. Be silent.

All Lee understood at the time was that she and her parents were undocumented. Her father feared for the worst and told Lee that if she told anyone, she could be deported to Brazil, where Lee was born. Her parents would be deported to Korea, where they were born. And her little brother, who was born in Chicago, would be left in foster care in the Unites States.

Years later, when Lee was getting ready to graduate high school, she revealed her secret to a music teacher who was encouraging her to apply to college. The teacher ended up contacting U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to see if there was anything his office could do to help Lee.

On June 28, 2011, Senator Durbin shared Lee’s story at the first ever Senate hearing on the DREAM Act.

Durbin said his office contacted immigration officials to explore options for Lee, but they were told there was only one thing she could do: “Tereza would have to leave the United States. That’s when I began to work on the DREAM Act,” Durbin said.

Splinter spoke with Tereza Lee about her journey since becoming the “original DREAMer.” The following interview has been edited and condensed.

SPLINTER: Shortly after the DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, there was a lot of hope elected officials would approve the bill. But the hearing was scheduled on September 11 and it was canceled after the terrorist attacks that day. Tell me what it has been like seeing the DREAM Act introduced 16 years ago and seeing the legislation re-introduced yet again?

Tereza Lee: It’s been quite a roller coaster. There have been ups and down, and a lot of hopes have been crushed. The DREAM Act has been introduced almost every two years since it first failed in 2010.

[Senate Democrats came up five votes short of the 60 needed to advance the House-passed bill.]

The DREAM Act was reintroduced in 2011, again in 2013 as part of a larger Senate bill, and then this year. And over the years, the public has become very distrusting. But the movement that has come out of this in the last 16 years is the number one most important part of all this. We also saw organizations coming out in support of undocumented immigrants for the first time.

When you were a child, your dad told you not to tell anyone about your immigration status. But years later, when you were a teen, Senator Durbin shared your story on the Senate floor. What was that journey like?

When my dad sat us down, I was seven years old, and I was told that if I shared my immigration status with anyone, our family could be separated. I had real nightmares. I was afraid of authority figures, even teachers. I became very shy, quiet, reserved, and very careful. It’s a similar story that many people have shared.

When I was about 16 years old, the artistic director, Ann Monaco, at the Merit School of Music [in Chicago] asked me what colleges I was planning on applying to. I told her I wasn’t going to college.

She printed out 10 applications, and I filled them out as much as I could. I brought them back to her the next day, and she saw the Social Security box on the applications was empty. I was in tears, I was hysterical, and I asked her to please not report me to the police. I was terrified and prepared for the worst possible scenario. I was afraid I’d be deported to Brazil, parents would go to Korea, and my brother would stay in foster care.

I went public, and my parents were very scared. They asked why I did this, and they told me to mentally and emotionally prepare for the worst.

When Senator Durbin shared your story, did you know other people who were public about their immigration status?

I didn’t know anyone that was public. I thought my family was the only undocumented family. Nobody talked about it. It wasn’t until 2005 that I saw other people coming forward publicly.

I first approached Durbin in 2000. He was going to write a private personal bill to see if he could help me, but then other young people started contacting his office. Then that became the federal DREAM Act. It became more than a personal bill; it was the DREAM Act that would benefit thousands. Now we know it’s millions of people.

I thought of it in terms of people needing to know my story. There were people who needed to understand what this life is like so we could gain public support, so that they would go on and influence their senators and representatives.

[An estimated 3.3 million unauthorized young people meet the age requirements stipulated in the DREAM Act. A significant number, however, would have to complete high school or re-enroll in GED programs to be eligible for a path to legalization; according to the Migration Policy Institute, only 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants meet that requirement.]

What do you think about Senator Durbin’s speech and how you were portrayed?

At that time, the narrative was different than it is today. We had 60 votes lined up, and that would have overridden a president’s veto.

He presented my case, and I was portrayed as a model American. I had piano skills, I had recently won a big competition, and I played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I had started a performance career. I [was presented as someone who] had certain skills that I could contribute, and it was because of those skills that I should be granted citizenship. It was a way to appeal to Congress. The DREAM Act is exclusive, but that was the way it was back then.

Now, years later, that narrative has changed. Now it’s about keeping families together.

Do you identify as a DREAMer?

Yes and no. We should not have to have certain skills sets to be able to live here. We contribute to society in one way or another. But at the same time, I also see how that narrative works for a certain audience that would otherwise not support immigrant rights.

You married a U.S. citizen, and are now a naturalized citizen. Your citizenship ceremony was just one day after the DREAM Act failed again in Congress in December 2010. What was that experience like?

That was extremely difficult for me. I felt an enormous amount of guilt that I couldn’t handle. It was extremely emotional. I’ve made a lot of friends who are DREAMers. We were all fighting like mad, with everything we had. And then it failed. And then the next day I had my citizenship. I held the sheet of paper that said I was a citizen, which gave me all the rights and allowed me to live as a human being, and it was completely surreal. It was very difficult. I still have family members who are undocumented.

What can people reading this interview do right now to support young undocumented immigrants?

The number one thing people can do right now is to call their representatives and senators and ask them to co-sponsor the DREAM Act. Right now we have the support of 200 House representatives—we need 18 more before it passes the House and advances to the Senate.

We need calls in all states but especially to representatives in New York, Minnesota, and Nebraska. People need to call their reps. Call every other day. It takes three minutes of your time to ask your representative to cosponsor the DREAM Act.

Lee, 34, is now a U.S. citizen. She is married and a mother of two. She’s currently finishing her Ph.D. at the Manhattan School of Music. Her dissertation is an analysis on how American music is defined.

“It lines up with my story,” Lee said laughing. “My entire childhood I was trying to define myself as an American and why not do it with music.”

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