HAMZA SIDDIQUI and MADIHA SHAHABUDDIN
They had no say in their immigration, but the illegal status of nearly 1.3 million undocumented children in the United States will be a hindrance for their entire lives. They cannot qualify for financial aid to attend colleges, nor can they legally work after they graduate.
The DREAM Act would provide them a path to legalization.
It’s the place where you grew up, where your family lived, where you went to school, where you made your first friend, where you remember walking to the local store, where you played, where you prayed, and where you fell in love. Ever since you can remember, this is where you have always been, where you felt most at home.
It’s all you’ve ever known.
When you start to consider settling down and creating a life for yourself, the reality hits you. As an undocumented immigrant whose parents brought you to America illegally as a child, you face financial, educational, and social roadblocks that prevent you from establishing a life of your own–the “American dream.”
Recently college students across the nation were glued to their TV screens waiting to hear how their future would pan out, only to see that dream disintegrate.
The United States Senate was deliberating on the DREAM Act, a bill which would grant children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
The bill had already passed in the House of Representatives and many DREAM Act supporters were hoping to get the bill passed during the lame duck session, before the arrival of newly elected congressmen and senators in January 2011.
Much to their dismay, the DREAM Act did not pass in the senate.
The bill garnered only 55 votes, failing to secure the 60 necessary to overcome a republican filibuster. For now, the fate of undocumented students remains unchanged.
Every year nearly 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school to the reality that their illegal status affords them neither jobs nor a realistic chance at an education.
According to a 2008 study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, these immigrants come from all regions of the world including the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa. 9.6 million come from Latin American countries including 7 million from Mexico alone. Asia ranks second with 12% of the population, Europe and Canada with 4% and Africa with 4% according to study.
Those who choose the path of higher education have to face the reality that they do not qualify for financial aid, forcing them to pay extravagant fees without financial assistance and in most cases as an out-of-state student.
Upon graduating college, financial burden and all, their illegal status is once again a hindrance, prohibiting them from working towards a profession in America legally.
Approximately 1,700 undocumented students currently enrolled in California higher education institutions face this reality today.
Although they were not born here, “a lot of these students have been raised in the United States,” according to Dr. Ana Rosas, a professor in the Chicano Studies program at UC Irvine.
“Some of them did not know they were undocumented until they started filling out forms and realized that they had to start identifying that way.”
These students may have been able to attend high school because of the United States Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, but without a means to legalize their status, they are seldom able to finance a college education, nor can they work legally.
Even if they do decide to go to college, “they have to pay exorbitant fees or resort to loans that are outside the purview of regulations…Their families are in debt with people who could be potentially abusive with the terms of the loan.
So you have that psychology of feeling like–‘I’m taking on this education and my family’s taken on more of a burden than they probably would if I had a subsidized loan. I have to do well, and when I do well and graduate, I can’t apply for a job because I’m not legally entitled to do so,’” emphasized Professor Rosas, when highlighting the tremendous challenges faced by these students.
Professor Rosas believes that the DREAM Act is an opportunity to make “accessible something that should automatically be available to a population of students who through no fault of their own are being denied a right to afford an education, the right to feel that they will have access that would result to an ideal a living wage.”
Growing up in America, these students have been “oriented to think that education is the pathway to success,” and by allowing them to access financial aid and federal work-study programs, the DREAM Act would give them an “opportunity to access education on terms that are a bit more humane,” according to Professor Rosas.
Enacting the bill would not only grant undocumented students the same opportunities of affording higher education as their peers, they would also have the ability to work legally after college.
Currently, undocumented minors are not only unable to work or qualify for financial assistance to attend college, but the judicial system also holds them accountable for illegally migrating to the US with their parents–a decision in which many had no say.
This exposes them to the threat of being deported at any moment to countries they hardly know.
As a result of this predicament, in 2001 a bipartisan initiative called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) was introduced on the Congressional floor to help remedy this issue.
Aimed at providing these immigrants a path to citizenship, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the chance to obtain legal permanent resident status.
To qualify for the act, individuals must meet the following conditions: they must have entered the United States before their sixteenth birthday, have spent five continuous years in the country since the enactment of the bill, have obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent and have demonstrated good moral character.
Upon meeting these prerequisites, undocumented students can apply for a six year “conditional” legal permanent resident status.
“If, within this six-year period, the DREAM Act beneficiaries complete at least two years toward a four-year college degree, graduate from a two-year college, or serve at least two years in the U.S. armed forces, they would be able to change their conditional status to permanent and would become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship,” according to Roberto Gonzales, a former UC Irvine graduate student and author of Young Lives on Hold, a research paper on undocumented students which was published by the College Board.
The DREAM Act would also amend the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, repealing the provision that makes undocumented immigrants ineligible for higher education benefits.
This would allow them to apply for financial aid, student loans and federal work-study programs.
But the intent of the DREAM Act is not just restricted to legalization and educational accessibility. Arguably, one of the main reasons for drafting the DREAM Act is its military component.
In repeated attempts at passing the Act both in 2009 and 2010, proponents of the bill cited the tremendous benefits that the US Armed forces would stand to gain if the bill were to pass.
In 2010 the bill was even attached to the National Defense Authorization Act because of its strong linkage with the military.
The DREAM Act would make accessible to the military a pool of potential recruits who are educated, have lived in the US for at least 5 years, if not spent their entire adult lives here, most of whom have participated in their high school ROTC programs, are bilingual, and are a population who is already inclined to join the military.
So this begs the question: What is the primary purpose of the DREAM Act?
Is it to give undocumented students, who through no fault of their own, are stuck in social, economic, and educational circumstances from which they have no way out?
Or, is it a means for the military to tap into potential recruits in hopes to remedy the recruiting, educational and behavioral shortfalls they are facing?
On college campuses, we often hear about the tragic stories of Ivy League students who are either unable to attend college, or can’t make anything of their education even after they graduate.
But the reality is that not only has the Pentagon worked on the Act, but high ranking military officials have also come out in support of the bill. Bill Carr, the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, said that the bill was “very appealing” and would be “good for military readiness.”
Military expert Margaret Stock, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, agreed when she said that the “passage of the DREAM Act would be highly beneficial to the United States military.
Conservative military scholar Max Boot sums it up quite succinctly when he remarks that the DREAM Act would allow the military to tap into “a substantial pool of people. I think it’s crazy we are not tapping into it.”
The DREAM Act promises to enlarge dramatically the pool of highly qualified recruits for the U.S. Armed Forces…passage of this bill could well solve the Armed Forces’ enlisted recruiting woes.”
Senator Dick Durbin, one of the authors of the bill, continuously cited the military benefits of the act on the senate floor.
According to the Senator, “The DREAM Act creates a strong incentive for military service…many DREAM Act kids come from a demographic group that is already predisposed towards military service.”
For Durban, the military benefits of this Act are tremendous, but the bill cannot mandate military service.
The senator believes that “it would be inconsistent with the spirit of our volunteer military to force young people to enlist as a condition for obtaining legal status.”
Cue the educational component of the act.
Considering that only five to ten percent of undocumented high school graduates attend college, it is hard to ignore the reality that the DREAM Act would serve more of a military goal than an educational one.
Although education is a part of it, it is clear that the DREAM Act is designed for and targets a group that would more likely join the military than pursue higher education.
And from listening to the bill’s authors and seeing its main proponents, this inherent bias towards military benefits is clearly intended.
Andrea Gaspar, a second year International Studies major at UC Irvine, is the president of the club DREAMs at UCI, an organization that supports and promotes the DREAM Act.
She believes that despite the clear military motives which drive the act, “at the end it’s politics. They have to get something out of it, so we can get something small out of it [too].”
She understands the reality of the military component and says that if the DREAM Act gets passed, a lot of people will join the military because it is “an easy way…the less expensive way to be able to get a citizenship.”
But Andrea believes that it’s still worth it.
“As a person of color, I don’t support the military, but I do believe we need to fight for something like the DREAM Act because it’s not a perfect world.”
Although not a Dreamer herself, she believes that ultimately the decision to support the act falls on the shoulders of undocumented students.
Gaspar continues by saying that from an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to criticize the military component, but for undocumented students who have not seen immigration reform in 24 years, the DREAM Act is the only opportunity that allows them to improve their condition.
For Professor Rosas, the military component of the DREAM Act is essential for the bill to pass.
She believes that it serves as a transformative tool that changes the general public’s perception of undocumented students from “products of their criminal parents,” to individuals who are contributing positively to society.
By highlighting the military benefits, DREAM Act advocates can now diffuse any claims that illegal immigrants simply use up resources designated for citizens by portraying them as committed members of this country.
Those of us not made to suffer the fate of an undocumented student who struggles with exuberant financial burdens, faces the threat of potential deportation and looks towards a thoroughly uncertain future, may stand to learn a valuable lesson about the value of education–a right for everyone.
Whether we agree with the DREAM Act or not, it is time for us as students to see our struggle in the undocumented students’ struggle, and it is our duty to demand accessible education for all.
HAMZA SIDDIQUI is a Political Science major in his final year at the University of California, Irvine
MADIHA SHAHABUDDIN is a third year Political Science major at the University of California, Irvine
Photo by ANUM ARSHAD