Undocumented students are organizing around the country to get the Dream Act passed
In July of 2006, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raided the Miami home of undocumented student Gaby Pacheco and her family.
Pacheco had been making waves in the media as an activist and supporter of educational rights for immigrant students across the country, and word had apparently gotten back to ICE about her antics. But when federal agents went into her home, she wasn’t there. Her family was taken in for questioning instead. “They detained my parents and my two sisters, but I stayed behind to make phone calls to friends in the media, lawyers, and anyone I could,” Pacheco told the Current recently.
She found out later that ICE had mistaken her sister for herself. When the agents realized their mistake, ICE finally brought her in for questioning. A deal was struck: They’d all be released, Pacheco would be allowed to keep her visa, but in exchange she agreed to cut out the organizing. It was a promise made to be broken. “I knew it would be virtually impossible,” Pacheco confessed.
Today, she is still fighting to secure access to higher education for foreign-born students living in the U.S., and she and others like her have found fertile ground for their message in Texas. At the heart of Pacheco’s mission is the DREAM Act. First introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2001, the Act was a legislative attempt to provide an 11-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented students throughout the country, including access to higher education.
For Pacheco, approaching graduation in 2003 brought a wash of anxiety. “I felt like I was going to turn eighteen, walk the stage at graduation, and my life was going to end. Like a switch was going to be turned off, and I was going to be standing in darkness.”
There are estimated to be 65,000 undocumented students who will graduate high school next year with much the same mindset. No reputable employer, community college, or university may grant them employment or admission without legal citizenship. Therefore, children who have spent the majority of their lives in the United States will have their choices vastly limited. While the DREAM Act would provide at least the possibility of conditional legal citizenship to those students, the current political environment makes passage extremely dubious. Since immigration reform fell to national security concerns in the wake of 9/11, it’s been extremely hard to put it back on track. Several similar pieces of legislation have been introduced and failed in both the House and the Senate, turning DREAM Act activists into a national movement in 2007, shortly after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (a plan to build over 700 miles of high fencing between the U.S. and Mexico) became the law of the land. DREAMers, as they have come to be known, are working across the country to reawaken the nation’s awareness of the positive contributions of immigrants.
Students at San Antonio community colleges and universities have also begun to organize and mobilize so that local elected leaders feel the heat. At a DREAM Act Summit held at Trinity University two weeks ago, students, community leaders, activists, and educators gathered to formulate a game plan. Among the student leaders was Pamela Reséndiz, an undocumented UTSA student now facing deportation proceedings. With dark, shoulder-length hair, scholarly glasses, and a plum-colored scarf draped around her neck, Reséndiz doesn’t look any different than any other college student her age.
She wears a button that reads “I SUPPORT THE DREAM ACT,” and when she speaks, she’s articulate, confident, and bears no foreign accent. “DREAMers all over the country are organizing and we are producing results — 300,000 calls and emails,” she told the group. “We have organized rallies, press conferences, vigils, sit-ins, fasts, and legislative visits.”
Having been in the U.S. almost her entire life, her desire to enact change is palpable, and she becomes emotional when she speaks of her plight. But it’s Reséndiz and students like her who will be directly affected if this bill is not passed.
In September of this year, the Senate voted 56-43 not to move forward with a key defense bill that had the DREAM Act attached as an amendment. The defense bill also included a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which would allow gay men and women to openly serve in all branches of the military. Senator John McCain and the majority of the Republican Party strongly opposed the repeal of DADT (since declared unconstitutional by a U.S. District judge), so they led a filibuster against the defense bill, saying that that it should not have been bogged down by “social experimentation.”
To qualify for DREAM benefits under the proposed legislation, undocumented students must have been in the U.S. at least five years prior to its enactment and graduated from high school or obtained a GED. They then will have a choice of serving two years in the military or completing two years of college, either of which must be done within a six-year period. Finally, they will have to prove that they are of “good moral character” over the following five years.
Aside from the uproar caused by the fact that DREAM was essentially legislation hidden within legislation, DREAMers and their allies were further incensed by the time limitation that was imposed on putting the act into law. The challenge: bringing the bill (on its own) back to the floor before Congress goes on break at the end of the year.
“We’re going to vote on The DREAM Act. It’s only a question of when.” Or so says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the bill’s sponsors. Senator Reid, facing re-election in Nevada for fifth term as this story goes to press, is continuing to rally the support of Latino voters in Nevada, most recently promising to bring the DREAM Act to the floor in the lame-duck session regardless of the election’s outcomes. “I just need a handful of Republicans,” Reid told Univision’s Al Punto last week. “I would settle for two or three Republicans to join with me on the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, but they have not been willing to step forward.”
The fact remains that undocumented students are losing time they don’t have, and they’re ready to do whatever it takes to get this bill passed.
Lucy Martinez is a sophomore at UTSA majoring in Mexican American Studies and Women’s Studies. If the bill isn’t enacted soon, she worries that her dreams of attaining a PhD will be soon forgotten. “If this bill isn’t passed, I don’t know what I’ll do. I know I have potential, but without my citizenship I may end up working as a waitress or a maid.”
Her mother is a construction worker, paying for Martinez’s entire first year of school out of her own pocket because nobody was willing to help her daughter obtain financial aid. “They tell you financial aid is on a first-come, first-served basis, and they keep information from you in a way, redirecting you to other people who aren’t willing to help you either,” Martinez said. “Being a DREAMer, you can’t work, so you can’t help your family pay for your own education. It’s very frustrating not being able to help your family.”
These frustrations link directly to the overall economics of DREAM. According to the National Immigration Law Center, the DREAM Act would help reduce the dropout rate of high school students, which is currently over 50 percent in San Antonio. The Law Center further found that children of undocumented immigrants are far more likely to drop out of high school than are students who were born in the U.S.
The RAND Corporation, a non-profit policy think tank, found that the average female Mexican immigrant who graduates from college as a result of the DREAM Act would likely increase her pretax income at age 30 by more than $13,500 per year. She will pay $5,300 more in taxes and cost $3,900 less in criminal justice and welfare expenses each year. This amounts to a total contribution of more than $9,000 per person, per year.
Despite its staggering economic benefits, DREAM continues to be met with opposition by those who believe it will be manipulated by its beneficiaries. One anti-DREAM Act organization has gone so far as to create a website called “No American Dream Act” or “NADA,” spotlighting the bill’s primarily Mexican American beneficiaries through the use of the Spanish word nada — meaning “nothing” — as its acronym. This particular group wrongly states that DREAM would provide “discounted college education to illegal aliens.” The bill actually states that foreign-born immigrants living in the U.S. may no longer have to pay international tuition to attend college.
In spite of some strong opposition, the three DREAMers interviewed by the Current refuse to be deterred. Although Pacheco is located in Miami, and Reséndiz and Martinez are doing their work in San Antonio, all three young women share a concerted vision and a lofty goal. According to Pacheco, they’ve already won. “More than ever, youth all across the country have been so ignited that they’ve created a national movement. They’re realizing what’s happening. For us, that’s been the victory.” •
Christine Garza blogs for the Current under the moniker Contemporary Xicana at blogs.sacurrent.com.