January 21, 2009, was an ordinary afternoon like any other for 23-year-old Benita Véliz. But after picking up lunch in Helotes, Véliz was pulled over by a police officer for not making a complete stop at a stop sign. As an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. since the age of eight, Véliz, who was the Valedictorian of her class at Jefferson High School and earned a double-major degree from St. Mary's University, knew receiving a standard traffic citation was not going to allow her to continue her day as she had planned. Her life was about to change.
"The first feeling I had was panic," Véliz said. "I never thought something like that would happen to me. I always had this picture in my head where workers in a field would run off when immigration showed up. I didn't think it happened on a random afternoon while driving."
Unable to produce a driver's license, Véliz instead showed her Mexican consulate ID. When asked if she was born in the U.S., Véliz said "no" and was told the department's policy was to inform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of anyone in the country illegally. "They took me to the detention center and put me in a cell," Véliz said. "I felt like a fish out of water. Everyone else there only spoke Spanish and were recent immigrants. I just felt my situation was different. I'd been in the country for 15 and a half years. I definitely felt like I was an American."
Not only did the incident encourage Véliz to fight for her right to be in the U.S. and become an advocate for the DREAM Act — proposed legislation that could provide a path to citizenship for some immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — it also inspired her brother, San Antonio-based filmmaker Pablo Véliz (La Tragedia de Macario), to write a film about his sister's story. In his sixth feature film, Cardboard Dreams (Cartoneo y nopalitos), he follows a young Mexican-American medical student (Mayra Alejandra) living in the U.S. who faces deportation when authorities discover she is undocumented. The film, which was completed in 2010 and won the Premio Mesquite Special Jury Award at 2011's CineFestival, was released on DVD late last month by Celebrity Home Entertainment.
"I knew right away this was the next film I had to make," Pablo Véliz said. "I wanted to say something about the broken immigration system in America. That's what filmmakers do. They make personal stories about things that matter to them."
Lawyers and court proceedings became a regular part of her life. After three years of legal wrangling and red tape, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials finally decided last year to close her case. Then, in June 2012 President Barack Obama passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which directs federal law enforcement agencies to defer action on immigrants who come to the U.S. as children. While this does not legally change their immigration status like the proposed DREAM Act would, Véliz, who spoke at this year's Democratic National Convention and met President Obama, is still hopeful. "I think Pablo is in a very unique situation to tell our story because he is sharing part of our lives," Véliz said. "We are in every sense of the word American, except on paper."
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