Lizzette Arias arrived in Arlington when she was 2 months old.
She came with her family, who had immigrated here from Bolivia. They settled into an apartment near an elementary school.
"I used to watch out the window, the kids marching out to school. I was not allowed to go to school — for no good reason, I thought," Arias said. "The truth was that my parents were afraid to enroll me because of our immigration status. I asked Santa Claus and prayed to God that one day I would go to school."
Arias considers herself lucky to have been able to eventually enroll in the third grade. In 2007, she graduated from Wakefield High School as a valedictorian. She later found a small college in Pennsylvania that accepted her as an undocumented student and offered financial aid. She never thought of getting a job in America — until June 2012, when President Barack Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants two-year relief from deportation and work visas.
With the presidential election fast approaching, Arias says she's afraid: "I fear that I will be back against the wall, facing the 'what now' question."
Arias is just one supporter of the DREAM Act — sometimes referred to as a DREAMer — who spoke at a well-attended news conference Thursday at The Salsa Room on Columbia Pike put on by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and local Latino elected officials.
The DREAM Act would grant certain undocumented young people a six-year path to citizenship.
Virginia has seen a 92 percent increase in its Latino population since 2000, she said. Latinos now account for 8.2 percent of the state's population.
And Latinos make up 2.2 percent of the electorate — more than enough to swing this state in favor of Obama and perhaps Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine.
"We are glad the spotlight is on us," said Vanessa Cárdenas with the CAP Action Fund. "Latino voters care about every other issue Americans care about. We care about jobs. We care abut the economy. We care about immigration, because of our own personal stories."
State Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington last year became the first Democrat Latino elected to the state Legislature. He said Thursday that more than 100 languages are spoken in his legislative district, and 58 languages are spoken at nearby Wakefield High School.
"22204 is the world in a ZIP code. We are the future of Virginia. The rich tapestry of the world is growing in Northern Virginia," he said.
Lopez said the state Legislature has been engaged in demonizing groups of people and putting forth anti-immigration laws that would make the Old Dominion look like Arizona or Alabama.
"The thing is, Latinos are watching," he said.
Local leaders and former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello, who heads the progressive think tank's action fund, called on the Latino community to stand up for issues that affect them on Election Day — citing Obama favorably for his support of preschool programs like Head Start and criticizing Republican Mitt Romney for suggesting the elimination of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or that immigrants engage in "self-deportation."
"Latinos in Virginia can elect the next president of the Unites States," said Emma Violand-Sanchez, chairwoman of the Arlington School Board and founder of the nonprofit DREAM Project, which awards scholarships to undocumented students.
Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Walter Tejada, who delivered his remarks in English and Spanish, said it seemed during the Republican primary as if "candidates were tripping over each other to see who could be the most punitive to Latinos and immigrants."
He added: "… That platform that seeks to deny and divide is the Romney platform, and is one the Latino community categorically rejects."
Hareth Andrade, 19, was one of the first scholarship recipients from the DREAM Project. She immigrated to the United States at age 8, leaving her parents behind — a separation that would be made longer when it became more difficult to get visas following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I'm not afraid anymore," Andrade said. "Because now I'm looking forward to graduation from college. And I'm looking forward to getting a job, because I will probably get a work permit to work. But Deferred Action is only a two-year thing. We need something permanent. We need something that will grant DREAMers a path to residency."
Periello said more than half of Virginia Latinos know a young person who would be eligible for the DREAM Act — legislation immigrants are counting on Obama to support. Romney, the former congressman said, is backing policies that are "both dehumanizing and bad economics." The DREAM Act has the potential to add $370 million in tax revenue by bringing people out of the shadows and into a formal work environment, Periello said.
"No matter what community you're from, no matter what language you speak: This country has been built on the idea that everybody has within them greatness, and that we should be about creating a system that encourages that, encourages human flourishing, encourages innovation, encourages education," he said.
"And there is a sense that a progressive agenda can do that going forward for all, and raise all ships in the process, versus those who want to set one group against another and move us backward. And those are the stakes here today."