Francisco Catagena does not have too many memories about his native El Salvador. It's understandable. He came to America at the age of 10 with his father, mother and two younger siblings.
Cartagena's father and mother were both college-educated government employees in El Salvador. His father was a ranking official in the state prison system. But Cartagena said that some reforms his father was trying to implement in the gang-ridden prison system were not too popular with some. As a result, his family began to receive death threats.
Fearing for their safety, Cartagena's parents at first explored immigrating to America legally, but the costs were prohibitive, upwards of $10,000, and the process was expected to be a long one.
"We had our lives in danger," said Cartagena. "We needed to leave the country as soon as possible."
So, the family obtained visas and set off for the United States, telling their children that they were headed to Disneyland for a vacation.
"I just kind of rolled with it," said Cartagena. "I was 10, a trip to Disneyland? Awesome."
But instead, the family settled into life in the United States, overstayed their Visa's and became undocumented immigrants.
Cartagena said that, from 10 on, he was raised as an American. He graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 2009, but when it came time for him to a choose a college, Cartagena learned that he likely could not afford to attend a Maryland public university because he was undocumented. Lacking the proper immigration documents, Cartagena would have to pay higher out-of-state tuition in order to further his education.
His story is not so unusual, said Cartagena during a rally for the Maryland DREAM Act at the University of Maryland yesterday. Standing before a crowd of roughly 250 students outside of the Stamp Student Union, Cartagena urged the assembled to vote for the DREAM Act, which comes before Maryland voters in a referendum question during next month's general election.
The DREAM Act would allow the children brought into the country illegally by their parents to attend Maryland public colleges and universities. But there are some caveats. Students must have attended a Maryland high school for three years, received their diploma, and pay state taxes in order to qualify.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), speaking at the rally, said that the DREAM act is a matter of fairness. To those who oppose the bill, Cardin has one question for them.
"Why? Why do they want to deny innocent children the opportunity to get an education?" said Cardin in an interview after the rally. "It will not only help them, it will help their community. Why do you want America to not be able to take advantage of a trained workforce that can help preserve and create jobs and make America competitive for the future?"