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News & Politics

DREAMers: How Equal Opportunity For Immigrant Minors Could Actually Help Our Economy

Allowing immigrant minors the resources to pursue their dreams and achieve upward mobility would benefit not only them, but our economy as well.

They are lost in limbo, their lives on hold, and their contributions sidelined while politicians debate their value to society even as they excel at school, volunteer in their communities and serve in the U.S. military.

Their crime is having been born on different soil – Mexico, the Philippines, Honduras, Cuba, Colombia – then brought to the United States by families who wanted only to give them a better life.

They are the DREAMers – an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. For more than a decade, Dreamers and their allies have been pushing for a national Dream Act – a pathway to legal residency for children brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents.

While Democrats and Republicans debate social security and Medicare and cut or cap other vital programs to ease the $1.4 trillion federal deficit, Congress has overlooked a ready and willing source of revenue – the thousands of children of undocumented immigrants who, if allowed to follow their dreams, would help rebuild the economy by paying income tax and purchasing homes and cars.

About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that passage of the Dream Act would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next decade.

In a reportlast year, Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor at UCLA, wrote that the higher earning power of newly legalized workers, including the Dreamers, would translate to a tax revenue increase of $4.5 billion to $5.4 billion in the first three years.

Supporters call the national Dream Act “an investment, not an expense.”

In the decade since the Dream Act was first introduced in Congress, a patchwork of state laws has emerged. Some states allow undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition rates. On the other end of the spectrum, Alabama recently passed an immigration law that bans undocumented students from attending any state college.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation Monday that provides undocumented college students with access to private college funds. But it can't complete the dream by offering a chance for citizenship.

“If they don't have a future, why would they even finish high school? We want to let them know there is a way to pursue their dream,” said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), which pushed for passage of the state's Dream Act.

When Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signs his state's version of the Dream Act on August 1, it will be a major step forward in helping low-income, immigrant students realize their goal of going to college.

Until Congress passes a national dream act, many Dreamers like 22-year-old Cindy, whose parents brought her to the United States when she was 3, face an uncertain future.Cindy didn't know she was undocumented until she was in sixth grade. She wanted to attend a summer school computer class, but without a social security number, she couldn't apply. At that time, she didn't fully understand the implications, but by high school, her situation became clearer.

“I was thinking I was just like everyone else,” said Cindy, who doesn't want her last name used because of her family's resident status and so she can speak more freely.

Cindy's father works in the fast-food industry; her mother is a hotel housekeeper. They labor long hours but have never doubted they made the right decision by emigrating from Mexico to the U.S. They provided their family with a better life – and gave Cindy her passion to succeed.

Despite her worries that she wouldn't be able to attend college, Cindy studied hard, took honors courses, and graduated at the top of her high school class in Illinois, earning a full-ride scholarship to the University of Chicago. Dreaming of becoming a public school teacher, she majored in comparative human development. In June, she graduated from college – the first in her family to do so.

But with college graduation, Cindy realized the full irony of her situation.

As an undocumented immigrant, she is unable to work legally in the United States or even get a driver's license. She wants a career, to buy a car and someday a house, and to contribute to the country she considers her own – a country that refuses to recognize her.

“Psychologically, it is difficult. You want to better yourself, but there is not really much you can do,” she said.

“I can't work, unless I get paid under the table. The only jobs available like that are in the food industry. It's not really what I want to do after graduating from college,” she said.

“I think a lot about how life would be different if I could just work and have the proper documentation and not be in this limbo.”

Cindy had reason to hope when national Dream Act legislation passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, but the bill died in the Senate.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D–IL) re-introduced the legislation this year.

“When I look around this room, I see the future doctors, nurses, scientists and soldiers who will make this country stronger,” he said, nodding to the undocumented students who joined him for his opening remarks in Washington, D.C.

Durbin has asked religious leaders nationwide to hold a Dream Act Sabbath Sept. 23–25 to spread the word to their congregations and rally support for passing the law.

“It is wrong to punish children for the actions of their parents,” Durbin said.

While religious leaders call passage of the Dream Act a moral responsibility, opponents argue that the legislation will only attract more undocumented immigrants.

Even the most hopeful concede that it will take a miracle for the legislation to pass this year.Realistically, as long as we have the current leadership in the other chamber, it's unlikely this legislation is going to pass out of Congress and reach the president's desk,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for ICIRR. “What we can do is continue to work to raise the profile of the legislation.

“The need is still there. The students are still there with their hopes and ambitions. They still want to contribute to this country that they call home. They are committed and we are committed,” said Tsao.

No matter where people stand on the Dream Act, most agree that national immigration reform is needed, although what that reform would look like differs widely.

Illinois, one of a dozen states that allow undocumented students who graduate from local high schools to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, is leading the way for more rights for students who were brought into the country as children.

The new legislation brings the dream a few steps closer by setting up a Dream Fund supported by private donations, to create scholarships to help undocumented students pay for college. The law will also provide additional education for high school counselors so that they can better advise undocumented students about their college options.

The Illinois Dream Fund is necessary because undocumented students can't apply for federal Pell Grants or state financial aid. For low-income students who are U.S. citizens, federal Pell Grants provide up to $5,550 a year in college financing. State grants can provide an additional $4,500.

“They have gone through the Illinois public schools, but they don't have the financial means to attend college,” said Paul Frank, vice president for government relations for the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities.

“It is a big hurdle when you compare them to other students with need. They are missing out on $10,000 a year,” said Frank.

Now, many are waiting and watching to see if private donors will, indeed, step up and contribute the money needed to make the Illinois Dream Fund a reality.

If it works, Illinois Dreamers like Carla Navoa would have a better chance of attending college.

Navoa was 5 years old when her family came to the United States on a tourist visa from the Philippines to visit relatives. They never went back.

“I really focused on school a lot because of my parents,” said Navoa. “My parents told us that we would be able to pursue good jobs, have more opportunities and have a better life. That's why we stayed here, for a better life.”

When it was time to apply for college grants and scholarships that would help pay for college, Navoa was faced with the harsh reality that, as an undocumented immigrant, she was not eligible for government financial aid.

Navoa, now 22, won private scholarships and scraped together money from her parents and odd jobs to pay the $6,000 per semester tuition at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Now, although Navoa is just a couple of semesters short of graduating, her money has run out and her dreams are on hold. She hopes the new private funding will be available eventually so that she can finish her education. Like Cindy, Navoa would love to become a teacher.

However, without passage of a national Dream Act, both Navoa and Cindy face uncertainty, unable to work legally and contribute to the national economy, even with a diploma in hand.

Unable to follow her dream to be a teacher, Cindy volunteers in her community, working for changes in immigration laws and rights.

“It is frustrating for my parents. They didn't think this is what would be waiting for us at the end,” she said. “I still thank them for the opportunity they gave me by bringing me here.” 

Kathy Mulady is a Seattle-based freelance journalist, who specializes in covering government, elections, historic preservation, neighborhood issues and business.
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