Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: What will Jeb do about DREAMers?

Members of the audience protest as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as he announced his candidacy for president Monday.
Members of the audience protest as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as he announced his candidacy for president Monday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Some are calling them hecklers.

I call them DREAMers, young people engaged in the American political process — and in the fight of their lives for legal status.

They and their undocumented parents, who take on jobs that Americans shun, are vying for the opportunity to embark on a path to citizenship in this country, and for them the future depends on this presidential election.

Wearing neon-yellow shirts, they turned out at Jeb Bush’s presidential announcement Monday and sat high in the nosebleed section of the bleachers at the Miami Dade College Kendall Campus Aquatic Center, holding up a sign that said: “DACA and DAPA are acts of love.”

The acronyms stand for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability programs — the only relief from deportation these youths and their parents have been able to obtain (and now facing a court challenge by a coalition of states, including Florida).

Bush and other Republican contenders reject those minimal measures granted by executive order by President Barack Obama after the Republican Congress failed to pass bipartisan immigration reform.

These relief measures can be wiped away by the next president. And the still unanswered question is: What would Bush do?

“We’re not clear at all on where Jeb Bush stands,” said Maria Bilbao, 49, housekeeper and mother of a DREAMer who plans to study international relations at Florida International University come fall. “One day he appears friendly to us and another day he says that we shouldn’t have these protections and that we shouldn’t be able to get citizenship with immigration reform.”

And so Bilbao and the others spelled out their point of view on shirts that, when they stood together, said: “Legal status is not enough.”

Their presence was more than relevant.

In 2005, while Bush was governor of Florida, the Legislature passed a bill that forced the children of the undocumented — even those who were born in this country — to pay out-of-state tuition rates four times higher than those for in-state students. These children had lived most of their lives in Florida, were educated in Florida schools, and yet the obstacle of paying higher tuition was placed on their road to furthering their education.

Bush signed it into law — all the while he was touting his brother’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

All of this makes Bush’s choice of campaign launch locale at MDC somewhat ironic.

MDC is DREAMer central. For years, it was the only educational institution DREAMers could afford — one that hustled quietly as the bad bill was passed and received financial assistance from private donors to help to pay for the outrageous Jeb Bush-era-and-beyond tuition rates.

I asked a Bush campaign staffer for comment on this issue and didn’t get an answer.

It wasn’t until last year that the predominantly Republican Florida Legislature tackled fixing this inequity so that it would not become a campaign issue for the unpopular Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was facing reelection.

On Monday, the presence of the undocumented in the audience forced Bush to get off script and take on a hot topic he wasn’t planning to address in a sea of mostly Cuban-American supporters: immigration reform.

“Just so that our friends know, the next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform, not by executive order,” Bush said.

Not that the DREAMers were able to hear him.

By then, security personnel and police had already escorted the DREAMers and their parents out of the Aquatic Center and the crowd had broken into thunderous chants of “Viva Jeb, viva Jeb!”

In trying to address the elephant in the room of his candidacy — hasn’t the country had enough Bushes in the White House? — Jeb Bush told the MDC crowd that the only dynasty to be fought in this election is liberalism.

But the -ism Bush really needs to worry about is the ultra conservatism of his own party, a dangerous current that we’ve seen in the last decade morph into a vocal anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-women agenda in Congress and states like Florida and Texas.

Jeb Bush’s immigration problem is the Republican Party’s immigration problem.

Despite his celebration of his multicultural family, Bush’s record shows he can either be a friend or foe to immigrants.

Which Bush would rule the White House?

Who knows. But call them DREAMers or countryless Americans, they want to know who will pave the path to citizenship.