American DREAMer: Once undocumented, Latina activist is a citizen

PHOENIX – Seven years ago, when she graduated from Arizona State University with an engineering degree, Dulce Matuz couldn’t get an engineering job.

The reason: Matuz was an undocumented immigrant.

But that undocumented status didn’t stop Matuz from political organizing for immigrant rights, or from being named one of Time’s “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2012.

On Monday, Matuz, 31, became an American citizen.

She joined 131 other immigrants from 33 nations at a naturalization ceremony at Trevor G. Browne High School. About 700 students witnessed the event. When Matuz got her citizenship certificate, she smiled and waved an American flag.

And then she walked outside the auditorium and registered to vote.

In doing so, she challenged 473,000 unregistered Latino voters to join her in registering to vote in the presidential election. “I want to challenge them and motivate them and explain to them that it is very important that they get involved and they vote,” she said.

“We want to create an Arizona that embraces diversity and immigrants instead of being in an Arizona that’s been recognized for anti-immigrant rhetoric and SB 1070,” Matuz said.

Now a local realtor, Matuz remains active in the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a youth movement that advocates for immigrant rights and education.

“When you have 11 million people who have been living here their entire life – paying taxes, [they] contribute in every way – and you’re not able to fully integrate them into this country, I think that’s wrong,” Matuz said.

Matuz, who said she immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, believed that when she was shut out of an engineering job in the U.S. she had two choices. She said she could “self-deport” and get a job “anywhere else in the world.” Or she could stay and fight for legislation like the federal DREAM Act, which never passed but would have given young law-abiding undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation so they could work or go to school.

-Cronkite News video by Brian Fore

As an undocumented immigrant, she said she had encouraged eligible voters to register to vote for years.

But that hasn’t always been easy.

“It is very hard to stay motivated when you have a Republican party that is always alienating the Latino vote and when you have a democratic party that hasn’t done a good enough job to have a backbone for the Latino community,” Matuz said.

Still, she said, there’s more to registering to vote than just partisan politics.

“This is about American values and respecting all those people that have fought and died for us to be able to vote today and participate,” she said.

She has lived in the United States for 16 years, she said, after entering legally with a tourist visa. When that visa expired, she became undocumented for 12 years.

In 2011, she said, she married an American citizen. Because Matuz originally entered the United States with a tourist visa, she was able to adjust her undocumented status to get a work permit after the marriage, she said. From there, she said, she obtained a conditional permanent resident card, followed by a permanent resident green card. That final green card springboarded her to citizenship.

Those options aren’t open to unauthorized immigrants who enter the United States without a visa, she said.

She has advocated for adjusting the immigration status of the nation’s law-abiding undocumented immigrants for years, no matter how the immigrants cross the border.

But such immigration reform, including allowing young law abiding immigrants to temporarily live in the United States without fear of deportation, has met with strong resistance.

Dave Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that seeks to significantly limit immigration, wrote in an email that some young undocumented immigrants find themselves in difficult situations because they were brought into the United States “illegally”.

Still, he said, the parents “created the situation in the first place.”