Laura arrived in the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was 1 year old and remembers nothing about the country where she was born; nor does she remember crossing the border, a crime she committed before she could speak in sentences. She does recall her father’s pledge to support her education to the highest degree she could achieve and vividly remembers graduating with honors from the University of California. But her academic achievements may be reduced to mere recollections, unfulfilled preparation for the work she would like to contribute, unless she can become a citizen of the only home she has known.
Ten years ago, Tania, then a teenager from Chicago, prepared to travel to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. She was scheduled to appear as an advocate for the CARE Act, legislation that would have granted a path to citizenship for such immigrant youth as her, who had arrived in the United States as minors, had grown up in the same culture as their American-born fellow students, and had graduated from American high schools and universities. The day before her flight, Tania received a telephone call: Two airplanes had just crashed into the World Trade Center and one had crashed into the Pentagon. She didn’t go, didn’t testify. She’s still undocumented.
There are thousands of young people like Laura and Tania, who arrived in this country as children through no decision of their own. They have pursued an education, followed the rules, and earned undergraduate and advanced graduate degrees. But they can’t make use of those degrees, can’t contribute their talents as professionals, because they are undocumented aliens. They include graduates who’ve been highly trained to become chemical engineers, computer scientists, teachers, sociologists, and social workers, but are legally prevented from using their hard-earned skills to benefit the United States. Some continue their education, some become activists to try to change their situation, some take jobs for which paperwork is not checked too closely for proof of citizenship. In practical terms, it is impossible for most of them to return to their countries of birth, so they live in the margins between an America that tells them those who work hard succeed and an America that pretends they’re invisible.
For years, legislation to provide a path to citizenship for such young people languished. Once known as the CARE Act, it was reconceived as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors). The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for those who arrived in the country before the age of 16 and achieve at least two years of higher education or provide two years of military service. In essence, the DREAM Act would not only resolve the legal dilemma facing thousands of talented, hard-working young people who immigrated through no decision of their own, but would also help reinvigorate the U.S. economy.
During recent months, the DREAM Act movement—it is no longer just a legislative campaign; it’s a movement—has redefined the struggle for immigrant rights. There have been “coming out” actions, in which undocumented students have rallied, risked media interviews, and for the cause put themselves as well as their families in danger. In May, five immigrant youths staged a sit-in in Sen. John McCain’s office in Tucson: Three were arrested and are threatened with deportation. Dozens of DREAM-eligible youth have thrown caution to the wind and staged hunger strikes, protests, and sit-ins in the offices of Congress members, each time announcing their immigration status and risking deportation.
In July, Laura sat in Sen. Harry Reid’s office and refused to leave until he promised to make the DREAM Act a reality before the end of the Congressional year. A few doors down, Tania sat in Senator McCain’s office, and demanded the same. They were both arrested and face trial at the beginning of October. It is almost certain they will face jail time and deportation. However, Sen. Reid did move the legislation forward, intending to offer it as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. Unfortunately, earlier this month, the Senate chose not to move forward with discussion of the Defense Authorization Bill, and as a result the DREAM Act could not be added as an amendment.
We are disappointed with the politicization of an issue that is simply about education, hard work, and sacrifice. We appreciate the effort of Sen. Reid and call on him to offer the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill. He has repeatedly stated his commitment to the DREAM Act, as has President Obama, and has reiterated time and time again it is necessary and timely legislation. The DREAM Act is a truly an American standard of reform. Now is the time for our nation’s leaders to do what is right and invest in America’s future. Please call Sen. Reid at (202) 224-3121 and ask him to bring the bill to a vote.
Flavia de la Fuente is the editor of DREAMActivist.org, a California native, and a UCLA graduate who recently moved to Austin, Texas. Send comments via the opinion editor at email@example.com.