Tolu Olubunmi: Fighting for the DREAM

The Nigerian native is fighting for reform for millions of undocumented immigrants, including herself.

Posted: 06/11/2013 02:27 PM EDT

(Photo: Joyce Jones/BET)

Imagine reaching that point in life when you're ready to mark some major milestones: first job, first driver's license or applying to college. Then suddenly, your immigration status stops you in your tracks.

For millions of young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at such a young age they've long forgotten the journey, the blow is coupled with the realization that they're not actually American.

For Tolu Olubunmi, 32, who arrived from her native Nigeria at age 14, it was graduating from college and being unable to get an employer to sponsor an H-1B visa for her because she is undocumented.

Today, her dream of a career as a chemical engineer "still lives in the back of my closet," alongside her degree, she said while introducing President Obama at a Tuesday morning White House press conference on immigration reform.

"[But] instead of living in fear and well below my ability, I have the privilege of spending my days advocating for immigration reform and supporting efforts to achieve that more perfect union that we all desire," she said.

In his remarks, Obama praised Olubunmi for having the courage to "step out of the shadows," and cited her as an example of why immigration is so critical to the nation's cultural diversity and its bottom line.

"When I speak to other world leaders, one of the biggest advantages we have economically is our demographics," the president said, surrounded by various stakeholders who joined him on stage in the East Room. "We're constantly replenishing ourselves with talent from all across the globe. No other country can match that history."

As the U.S. Senate prepared to take a procedural vote to begin debate on immigration reform, the president urged lawmakers to see the process through. He also offered his support for the Senate proposal even though it's not perfect and is a compromise.

"Nobody's going to get everything that they want not Democrats, not Republicans, not me," he said. "But this is a bill that's largely consistent with the principles that I and people on this stage have laid out for common-sense reform."

Inspired by Obama's first presidential campaign, Olubunmi decided to "live beyond my limitations," she said in an interview with BET.com, and began working on immigration reform.

"I started as an unpaid volunteer [in 2008] knowing nothing about immigration policy," she said. "I went into it thinking perhaps it will give me something to do and I will be able to help in some little way, but it really did change my life."

She recently was able to benefit from the president's deferred action plan for young immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain qualifications.

"I remember staring at [the notification] and calling my family," she said. "It has my name on it. This is me. I'm here and have been recognized," said Olubunmi, who currently works as a legislative assistant for the Center for Community Change.

She also has been extremely fortunate to have a network of family and friends who can provide the financial and emotional support she needs to persevere. As Obama noted Tuesday, millions of others who are in a similar situation live in fear and are "forced to do what they do in a shadow economy, where shady employers can exploit them by paying less than the minimum wage, making them work without overtime, not giving them any benefits."

They are why Olubunmi stays and continues to fight for immigration reform.

"We all carry the same burden of not being able to be ourselves, to live free and without limitations, to pursue our dreams. That's what this great nation was built upon," she said. "It's difficult to live here and be told every day that you can do whatever you want in the land of dreams, yet you stand there knowing your dreams are beyond your reach. That's difficult for anyone to live with."

Her biggest regret was not being able to say goodbye in person to her dying father in 2006 and attend his funeral. So, when asked what she longs most to do when immigration reform enables her to realize all her dreams, there is only one answer.

"I am going to go see my father," Olubunmi says softly.

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