On Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, most students were in class, hanging out with friends or doing work. But Maria Praeli was at the White House, meeting President Obama.
Praeli is a junior political science major at Quinnipiac from New Milford. But, originally, she is from Ica, Peru. Just a short time before her sixth birthday, Praeli immigrated to the United States with her mother and her older sister.
“Growing up undocumented in New Milford, there weren’t a lot of people like me,” Praeli said. “I felt really ashamed and I was really scared and I didn’t really want people to know.”
Praeli said being undocumented meant she was living in the United States illegally.
As an undocumented immigrant, Praeli did not qualify to apply for a driver’s license or a job because she did not have a social security card.
In 2011, Obama announced a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
After filling out paperwork and paying a $465 fee, Praeli said this policy gave her many comforts she was waiting for.
“I got approved so, therefore, I can work, I have my license and I’m safe from deportation,” Praeli said.
In the summer of 2014, Praeli interned with an organization called the National Education Association (NEA) in Washington, D.C. During her time at this organization, she worked in the department of civil rights in the center for advocacy and outreach.
Her supervisor at NEA oversaw immigration as part of his job. Praeli said this is an important part of the NEA organization because of the lack of educational funding available.
“[Undocumented students] are not available for financial aid, student loans or government grants,” Praeli said. “In most states, everything comes out of scholarships and out of pocket.”
Praeli said she quickly became interested in the immigration aspect of NEA and she learned she was among millions of “dreamers” in this country. Praeli said the term “dreamer” is the political word to describe an undocumented student.
At NEA, Praeli said she acted as an immigration liaison to her supervisor. Then, about halfway through the summer, she said she got involved with United We Dream [UWD].
“[United We Dream is] based in D.C. and [is] less than a ten-minute walk from the NEA,” Praeli said. “I met a lot of people who were undocumented from all over the country and I realized that I had grown up very blessed as an undocumented person.”
Little did she know then, but getting involved with UWD would open so many potential doors for her–one of those being the door to the Oval Office.
To Praeli’s surprise, she was one of the “dreamers” a campaign organizer from United We Dream chose to meet Obama.
Soon after, Praeli was in the Eisenhower building–located next to the White House–for a final prep session for the Dreamers to run through their stories one more time before meeting with the president.
Finally, Praeli said the Dreamers were brought into the West Wing of the White House and waited in the lobby for a few minutes before being lined up outside the door of the Oval Office.
“[Obama] opened the door and, I swear, the office was perfectly lit and the light was shining perfectly on him,” Praeli said. “None of us moved for a good five seconds.”
Once they all shook hands with the president and entered the Oval Office, Praeli said the Dreamers sat on the couch and President Obama sat on a chair.
“He talked a little bit about what was going on [in terms of immigration reform] and then he asked us to share our stories,” Praeli said. “I told him a little bit about myself, about how it was always a struggle growing up.”
Obama discussed the immigration reform progress during the time he spent with the “Dreamers,” according to Praeli. She said they spent about 35 to 40 minutes with him.
Praeli said they then spoke to the president alone for about 25 minutes. Then the press pool that was waiting for a formal statement from Obama joined them for about 10 minutes. And after they left, the president told the Dreamers about the historical artifacts in the Oval Office.
If she could relive the day she met Obama, Praeli said she would like to have brought up education in regards to immigrants. Praeli said since undocumented students struggle immensely with financial aid, she wants to bring that to the president’s attention.