KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The movement of young immigrants in the country without legal papers, who call themselves Dreamers, is held together by more than a commitment to push Congress for a pathway to citizenship.
More than 600 leaders of United We Dream, the largest national network of those young people, came together for their congress here last weekend to celebrate and reinforce a common culture, based on their experience living with hidden identities and with a low-grade but constant fear of deportation.
Their goal, they said, is to build an army of Dream warriors. They had Dream warrior T-shirts, Dream warrior chants and the prayer of the “four Tezkatlipokas,” an amalgam of wisdom drawn from gods of the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, the birth country of many of the young people. The sometimes exuberant, sometimes tearful, consistently cathartic three-day gathering was framed by rituals defining what it means to be one of those warriors.
“If you could not go to your abuelita’s funeral, stand up and tell me you are a Dream warrior!” Daniel Rodriguez, 26, a leader of the movement from Arizona, said from the stage in the big hall in the convention center in Kansas City.
“I am a Dream warrior!” shouted many of the young people, rising to their feet, recalling that they had missed visiting a grandmother before she died in the country where they were born. Without legal documents, they cannot return if they leave the United States.
Many of the young people proclaimed they were warriors because they had to turn down publicly financed college scholarships, which required legal residency and “a social” — Social Security numbers they did not have.
The Dream Act, from which they take their name, was first introduced in Congress in 2001. Since then, the young activists have had setbacks, including the failure of the bill in a vote in the Senate in late 2010. It would open a path to citizenship for young immigrants here illegally who came to the United States as children.
But this year they saw gains. President Obama granted them temporary reprieves from deportation and work permits, although no legal immigration status. California passed laws expanding their access to college. In November, Maryland adopted a ballot measure allowing them to pay in-state resident tuition for college.
Mr. Obama has pledged to start a debate early next year on a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration laws, including the Dream Act. To judge from the display they put on here, young immigrants will come to that fight with distinctive resolve and esprit de corps.
Not all their talk was of hardship. As the playful host of a mock television news show called Dream-Span, Mr. Rodriguez cited a list of the most exciting new opportunities young people now savor after they receive their deportation deferrals.
“Hanging your rosary again in your rearview mirror” and listening to Mexican ranchera music with the windows down, Mr. Rodriguez said, to delighted applause. Many of the young people come from Catholic families, and they drive even though they cannot obtain driver’s licenses, but they are careful not to do anything that might attract the traffic police.
Speakers who took the stage invariably began by narrating a “story of self” about their lives. The tales showed that the movement had attracted people beyond the high school honor students in caps and gowns who have been its public face up to now.
An outspoken contingent was Latino and Asian young people who are gay, the “undocu-queers,” as they call themselves proudly. Many had been through two moments when they revealed their identities to friends and to the public.
“Coming out as undocumented wasn’t as hard as coming out being queer,” said Hafid Dumet, who said he had to summon courage to discuss his sexuality in front of the gathering.
In smaller group sessions, young people confessed that they had come to the network to get away from the lure of violent street gangs or from domestic abuse. Giovanna Hurtado, 22, a Mexican-born immigrant who lives in North Carolina, recounted how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be violent. Four months after they were married, she said, “he tackled me and knocked me out.”
Ms. Hurtado said her husband had spurned her, calling her “a worthless illegal.” But after becoming active in a Dreamer organization, Ms. Hurtado said, she left the marriage.
Advocacy campaigns in California and other states gave many of the young people immersion training in legislative politics. But they will also come to the debate in Washington with their own zeal. “My favorite thing about us is that we’re crazy believers,” said Renata Teodoro, an immigrant born in Brazil. “This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. This is about our lives, and we’re not going to be put on hold.”