After the Fact: Tereza Lee

Posted by on Jun 27, 2018 in After the Fact
Diverse group being sworn in, American flag in background

Tereza Lee was an immigrant like these people. Her experience helped change the course of immigration in the United States. But where that course heads now is a big debate. Credit: Comstock/Punchstock

Have you ever heard of the DREAM Act? Short for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, DREAM would give undocumented children who were brought to the United States a route to legal permanent residence in the U.S. In other words, the DREAM Act would make it so that someone brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally as a baby, and who has grown up without knowing any other home except here, would be safe from deportation.

The DREAM Act, though it has been brought before Congress several times, has never passed. However, the term DREAMERS has become a popular way to refer to children in this predicament, who have grown up here and view themselves as Americans, yet live in constant fear of deportation. The “original” DREAMER was a young girl named Tereza Lee.

Who Was She?

Tereza was born in Brazil to parents who had fled South Korea after the Korean War. When she was two years old, her parents brought her to the United States, and she grew up in Chicago. While Lee’s undocumented status didn’t trouble her much as a child, it became a big problem when she was 17. Her obvious musical talent led her teachers to encourage her to apply to some of the nation’s top music schools. However, college applications require a Social Security number, and Lee didn’t have one.

The artistic director at Lee’s school encouraged her to contact Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat. She gathered letters of support from everyone she could, and met with Senator Durbin, who agreed to write a personal bill for her. Once other students in Lee’s situation got wind of what was happening, they approached Durbin as well, and he realized that he needed to revise his original bill. The end result was the first version of the federal DREAM Act, making Lee the original DREAMER.

What Happened Next?

The original DREAM Act gathered enough votes to pass and was scheduled to be heard before the Senate on September 12, 2001. But the terrorist attack the day before forever changed American views on immigration. The DREAM Act never again gained the support it needed to pass, despite being re-introduced nearly every two years since then.

Where Is She Now?

Tereza Lee is currently 35 years old and a music teacher and a concert pianist in New York. She is also pursuing her Ph.D. at the Manhattan School of Music. She has performed at prestigious venues including Steinway Hall, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.

She is now an American citizen by marriage–her husband was born in North Carolina–and she is the mother of two American-born children, a boy and a girl, who are American citizens as well. However, she still has undocumented family members and remains an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

In interviews, Lee says that a person shouldn’t have to have a specific skill set in order to be considered for citizenship and that all undocumented immigrants contribute to society in one way or another. She encourages those who are concerned about this issue to contact their representatives as often as possible.

Dig Deeper View this video of Senator Durbin telling Lee’s story to the U.S. Senate. In your opinion, does Senator Durbin make a convincing argument? Why or why not?