The future of millions of undocumented students hangs on the lame-duck Congress
Spurred by congressional Democratic leaders' promises to hold a vote on the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act before the end of Congress' lame-duck session this month, immigrant and civil rights advocates are pushing for the passage of bipartisan legislation that would give undocumented youth a shot at citizenship if they go to college or serve in the military for two years.
On Nov. 29 in San Francisco, several undocumented young people joined members of the Bay Area Coalition for Immigration Reform outside Mission High School — where as much as 20 percent of the student population may be undocumented, according to principal Eric Guthertz — to explain why it makes sense to give youth who grew up in the United States a shot at legal status.
"We are not asking you to give us a green card," Anna, a student from Guatemala, said at the event. "All we want is a chance to succeed and give back to this country. We live here, we pay taxes, we're smart, we go to college, but afterward we can't work and give back."
Mario, a 22-year-old gay student who was born in Peru to a Chinese father and Peruvian mother, graduated from UC Berkeley with a civil engineering degree. He explained that because of his lack of documentation, he can't get a job to pay his bills or save up to pursue a master's degree, and fears being deported to a homophobic country.
"It would be a waste of talent because I've learned California-specific engineering rules and the U.S. building code," Mario said. "Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare about being detained. I came out here, but in Peru, I'd probably be back in the closet.
Joining Anna and Mario was Shing Ma "Steve" Li, a nursing student at City College, who was released Nov. 19 after two months in federal detention, shortly before he was to be deported to Peru. San Francisco Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to halt his removal, saying it would be "unjust" to deport Li before a DREAM Act vote takes place.
Li, who speaks Cantonese, English, French, and Spanish, grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and dreams of opening a clinic to serve low-income San Franciscans. But recently, federal immigration authorities flew him 800 miles to a jail in Arizona, all because his parents brought him here when he was 12 and he lacks documentation.
"We were handcuffed and shackled to our seats, and I wondered what would happen if the plane went down," Li recalled.
Li believes the main barriers to the legislation's passage is lack of accurate information. "People need to know the facts, see the people, and hear their stories," Li said. "Then they'll know it is a human rights issue."
Guthertz said that as principal of Mission High, every year he sees undocumented youth who have great grades and lots of advanced placement classes "hit the wall" of their status. "Over and over, I've seen the heartbreaking effect of their situation," Guthertz said. "The DREAM Act is yet another avenue to help these students."
Eric Quezada, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, noted that congressional leaders did not agree to the DREAM Act vote "out of the goodness of their heart — it's because of the hard work of immigrant advocates."
Quezada said the push to force a DREAM Act vote in Congress this year began when undocumented youth staged a sit-in in Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) office in May. "And the vote of Latinos saved the Senate from a Republican takeover on Nov. 2," he said.
"But we understand this window is closing," Quezada added, referring to the reality that Republicans will take control of the House in January. "So we're not taking one vote for granted. And this is the first step. If we are able to pass the DREAM Act, it will be a downpayment for comprehensive immigration reform."
Sup. John Avalos says the DREAM Act recognizes the contribution immigrants make to the community, and to the creation of economic opportunities for everybody. "Immigrants here support themselves and their families across the water, so it makes sense that we make proper investments and support," Avalos said. "Education is one way to make the world a more stable place."
Sup. David Campos, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as an undocumented teenager, sees the DREAM Act as a piece of commonsense legislation.
"It's so modest," Campos said. "Even those who are against comprehensive immigration reform should be for something that recognizes that young people, who came here not by choice but because of their parents' issues, should be given a chance to give back."
Campos said his father was able to gain legal status for his whole family because of his employment, but that many undocumented youth aren't so lucky.
"We open the doors to our public schools, we invest in their education, and then, when they are ready to give back to us, we say, 'No, we don't want you here,'" Campos said. "The best and brightest, the risk-takers, come here. As a country, we cannot go forward unless we realize that this influx of creativity and entrepreneurship made this country what it is."