It was a graduation ceremony unlike the ones most have seen.
Mandeep Chahal, a 2009 graduate of Los Altos High School, kicked it off. Jose Antonio Vargas, a 2000 graduate of Mountain View High School, ended it.
More than 200 students filled the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the day after the U.S. Senate's first-ever hearing on the DREAM Act. Advocates say the mock graduation symbolized the fruition of the potential that many undocumented immigrant youths hold.
"Last year, just shy of my 30th birthday, I watched the Dream Act fail on the Senate floor—and mine wasn't the only dreaming that was shattered," said Jose Antonio Vargas, former Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings. Vargas made headlines last week when he revealed that he was an illegal immigrant, one who had beeen sent to this country as a child, and didn't know he didn't have legal documents until he went to get his driver's license.
The ceremony was organized by the national immigrant youth-led organization, United We Dream. It recognized the country's thousands of students eligible for the Dream Act and at risk of deportation. The Dream Act, intended to provide a path to citizenship for youths who were were brought to the country as minors, nearly passed in December after ten years in the making.
Chahal and Vargas sat among a small group of students participating in the ceremony, all in current deportation proceedings.
Just one week ago, Chahal, a sophomore pre-med student at the University of California-Davis, was facing deportation as she and her mother prepared to board a plane back to India. With a massive, 36-hour campaign aimed at members of Congress, friends and suppporters were able to get enough attention to her case, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) granted her a one-year stay.
"After hiding for so long, to be completely embraced by other DREAMers and allies has been incredible," said Chahal. "It gives me hope for our future and the future of our country."
United We Dream honored Chahal as the "valedictorian" at the Education Not Deportation (END) Graduation ceremony. She was met with a standing ovation.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), known as the "father" of the Dream Act, made a brief appearance at the ceremony. Upon taking the podium, he articulated his unwavering commitment to passing the Dream Act by persuading the DREAMers in the audience to "not give up on him." He promised to personally press the issue on President Obama when he saw him after the ceremony.
Vargas, arguably the most anticipated speaker, delivered the morning's final speech—insisting that the sole source of his own bravery to "come out" stemmed directly from the DREAMers whom he was addressing. When the bill failed last December, he confronted his own situation.
"I knew," he said, "it was time to make a choice...I chose to tell the truth."