Freedom From Fear Awards: Arizona Student Fights for DREAM Act

A surprise phone call that her college tuition had gone from $5,000 to $18,000 made Erika Andiola wonder if her educational career was over. Andiola had been looking forward to her third year at Arizona State University after having financially secured her education with six scholarships and excellent grades. But the school told her that as an undocumented student, she could not pay in-state tuition, and no longer qualified for two of her scholarships.

“I called my mom crying, ‘I think I’m dropping out of school.’”

Erika Andiola, 24, is one of 15 people across the nation who has been selected for the Freedom From Fear Award. Produced by Public Interest Projects, the awards are granted to ordinary people who have exhibited exceptional courage in the fight for social changes for immigrants and refugees.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Andiola crossed the border with her mother and four siblings when she was 11 years old. Fleeing domestic abuse, the family decided to make Mesa, Ariz. their new home. Erika always knew that she did not have legal status in the United States but could not comprehend the consequences at her young age.

When she first tried to apply for a driver’s license, her mother simply said, “Well, you can’t.”

The same response would reappear time and again for Andiola.

“It’s very hard for us to get jobs [even, for example] when we have degrees in engineering. We have to stick to babysitting and cleaning houses with our mothers, or doing construction with our dads.”

The 2009 American Community Survey estimates that more than 900,000 residents of Arizona (14.7 percent) are foreign born and more than 1,800,000 people are of Hispanic descent (29.8 percent). Arizona has passed a series of laws cracking down on immigration, including the infamous law SB 1070, which made it a crime to be undocumented in the state. The law went into effect last year after several of its key provisions were blocked by a federal judge. It has since been replicated in various states across the country.

Growing up undocumented in Arizona, Andiola said the state’s anti-immigrant climate was palpable.

“People in Arizona label us as illegal,” she said, “criminals living on welfare.”

When Arizona voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, making it illegal to give public scholarships to undocumented students or charge them in-state tuition, Andiola felt the effects on a personal level.

“There was anger inside of me, but I felt like I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “My hands were tied.”

Despite the increase in her tuition and the loss of two scholarships, Andiola was able to graduate with the help of private scholarships and an organization, Chicanos Por La Causa, which provides assistance for students. She graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Since her graduation, Andiola has devoted herself to activism with Promise Arizona, an organization that was created to encourage Latinos to vote and foster Latino leaders.

In 2008, Andiola met a group of other undocumented youths, including 22-year-old Michael Nazario, the leader of the group called the Dream Army. Together, they mobilized grassroots lobbying efforts and set as their goal passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legalization for undocumented high school graduates who enroll in college or the military. Their demonstrations included a mock boot camp in front of Senator John McCain’s Phoenix office in September 2010 and a mock graduation in Washington, D.C., that took place during the DREAM Act senate hearing in July 2011.

“We had 20 people sleeping (in front of John McCain’s office) every day for a month,” Andiola said.

In July 2010, Andiola was arrested along with 20 others who participated in sit-ins at the Capitol Hill offices of various Democratic and Republican senators.

Recognizing that the DREAM act provides a narrow scope of qualifying individuals, Andiola says, “Of course it’s not fair, but we’ve always said, ‘We’re gonna push for it to be the first step.’”

Andiola’s main focus continues to be the legalization of the DREAM Act. She hopes to go to law school so that she can know her rights and continue the fight.

“This is the county that we all love. I am not willing to give up,” she said, “and I’m not going to leave.”

The first Freedom From Fear Awards honors “ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees — individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action.” The Freedom From Fear Award was created by philanthropic leaders Geri Mannion and Taryn Higashi and administered and produced by Public Interest Projects.