Washington, D.C. - This week Mandeep Chahal sleeps in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., heralded as a poster child for the DREAM Act.
Last week the UC Davis pre-med student was fighting to keep her life together.
The contrast between the two is stark and entirely baffling to Chahal, whose composure belies the riccocheting changes her life has suddenly had, from surrendering for her one-way deportation flight to India, to receiving a standing ovation one week later in the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill after a speech she delivered for thousands like herself.
For the first time in her life, Chahal said she considers herself a DREAMer. That is a term coined recently for the new generation of undocumented young people fighting for the right to maintain life in the U.S. and fueling a grass-roots efforts in local, state and national levels.
"Being undocumented means you have to hide it from people—wanting to fly below the radar and not have people know that you're different," said the 2009 graduate, describing the inner conflict in having to conceal one's immigration status.
"But going public is the best decision I've ever made...the support has been overwhelming."
Chahal was honored as the "valedictorian" during a mock graduation ceremony organized by United We Dream, an organization comprised primarily of undocumented youth.
The podium was shared with other young people currently dealing with deportation proceedings. Also on the stage was U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Jose Antonio Vargas, who rocked major media outlets that he came to the U.S. as a child and has lived here illegally, even while excelling beyond all expectations.
Durbin, considered to be the "father" of the Dream Act, appeared briefly, but just enough time to motivate his young audience to not lose hope.
"We're not quitting," he says, after acknowledging the Senate is having a hard time getting to the 55 votes put towards the bill last year.
The DREAM Act would allow children of illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for more than five years, and have graduated from high school (or have obtained a GED), the opportunity to become a citizen by going to college or serving in the military.
The House passed a version of the act in December under Democratic leadership in late 2010, its best chance in years. It failed in the Senate by five votes. For the first time in the ten years the Dream Act has been on the table, a Senate hearing was held Tuesday.
"I have said this before and I'll say it again,"Durbin said. "I have not given up on you, don't you give up on me."
A new face on the forefront of immigration reform is one whose name would ordinarily appear in the byline, not the headline.
Jose Antonio Vargas is riding the rogue wave he created last week by publically disclosing his closest kept secret in an essay entitled "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," published by the New York Times on June 22.
The Pulitzer Prize winner, former Washington Post reporter and famed former editor-in-chief of the Oracle, the student newspaper of his alma mater Mountain View High School, delivered the pseudo graduation's commencement address, chronicling his journey towards learning and ultimately living with the knowledge that he does not legally belong to the place he has considered home since the age of 12.
"I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, if I did enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship...I felt like I could actually earn it," explained Vargas.
Real dialogue on immigration reform needed to take place, Vargas said. That he and Chahal were speakers illustrated how widespread the problem is, he suggested. Purely by coincidence, his and Chahal's cases exploded on the national stage in the same week—and that he and Chahal came from the same place: the .
"We really need to start thinking about what we're doing here," Vargas said."It's both how big and how small the problem is, in a way. She and I went to the same school district."
Surrounded by reporters and high school students requesting to pose with him for photos, Vargas is admittedly not used to the attention.
"I was the one covering the press conferences," he says, alluding to the numerous times he sat with a notebook and pen in the Russell Senate Office Building "Now I'm the spectacle of one."