DREAM Act re-wakens
The federal government is reconsidering a bill to guarantee that thousands of undocumented children graduating high school have an opportunity to earn an education.
The DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — would serve an estimated 65,000 undocumented children graduating from U.S. high schools each year by providing them with a chance to go to college and become a citizen.
Sponsors introduced the act to Congress multiple times over the last decade, most recently in the Kennedy/McCain immigration reform bill, but it continually failed to garner enough votes.
Advocates are hoping the newly elected Congress and Obama administration will lead the way for approval of the act.
Every year 2.8 million American students graduate from high school choosing to enter the workforce, join the military or apply to college. But for many gifted children without citizenship their education ends before reaching fruition.
“Juan,” an undocumented student living in Florida, came to the United States with his parents in 1999. The family received a work visa to establish a business and applied for permanent citizenship status until a mistake by the family’s attorney left them in a residency limbo.
“A lawyer didn’t follow through on a promise,” he said. “We followed the laws and because our lawyer fell through, and the immigration system is broken, we are stuck here.”
In the mean time, Juan attended school and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He explained college as “being hectic,” and while classified as a international student pays more than double the tuition of a Florida resident. As for his family, they hope that immigration authorities won’t discover their presence and uproot them from the life they’ve made in Florida.
“My family is here but are living day-by-day. There is no way for us, there is no way we can legalize yourself,” he said.
The DREAM Act could allow many students in a related situation to reach conditional citizenship by joining the military or attending a university for two years. Undocumented students receive a six-year temporary residency until they satisfy those requirements, but if they fail to do so they’ll be deported.
Students Working for Equal Rights, an advocate organization, states that 5,000 undocumented students graduate each year from high school in Florida. Only 5 percent of these undocumented students go on to college as compared to 75 percent of other graduates.
Although critics are concerned that immigrant children are taking funds from U.S. students wanting a college education, undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid such as the Pell grant.
While Juan is currently attending a university in the state, he said his education is covered by his family who has to scrimp and save to raise tuition. But even if he graduates with a degree there is no business that can hire him without citizenship or a visa.
“Just because of a piece of paper, even if I got my degree, there would be no way for me to get a job in any skilled area I decide to pursue,” he said.
Andrea Ortiz, a student leader in the Manasota Human Rights Coalition and board member of the Florida Immigration Coalition, said that in Southwest Florida advocates are working to have the DREAM Act passed along with comprehensive immigration reform.
“The DREAM Act is one of those situations where we are giving voice to the voiceless,” said Ortiz. “They were taken by their parents and they go to school here, and it would be reasonable for them to be able to go to college.”
In many cases she said that if the undocumented students had legal status they would be eligible for a 100 percent academic scholarship under Bright Futures, but had to forego high education because of their residency situations.
The coalition has been corresponding with local representatives and hosting town hall meetings to pressure legislators, she said.
Immigration is a major issue in Florida where the concentration of undocumented immigrants is the fourth largest across the country.
Many Florida residents believe that illegal immigration is harming their state and won’t necessarily support reforms like the DREAM Act.
A study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform found that the state spends $3.4 billion each year to educate undocumented children. Overall, it determined that Florida houses 950,000 undocumented residents.
A Zogby Poll from April also reported that 71.3 percent of Florida voters believed illegal immigration had a negative impact on the state and only 36 percent of those surveyed supported amnesty or legalization for current undocumented residents.