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Chasing the DREAM Act
Juana Campos, with reporting by Isaura Abreu
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Some names have been changed.

Carlos came to the United States from a very poor, agricultural town in the Mexican state of Puebla four years ago, when he was 12 years old. In Puebla, he had lived in a concrete house with no heat and only had two bed sheets to keep him warm on cold nights. Carlos had to carry water from a well for his family to cook, clean, and shower. A tree outside of the house was their air conditioner; they would sit beneath its shadow on hot days. Even school supplies were hard to come by; Carlos had to reuse his old notebooks each year.

Carlos’s family made a living by growing crops like corn and planting flowers to sell. They earned less than the U.S. minimum wage. His parents got home extremely tired after a day of work and went straight to bed.

When Carlos was only 4, his parents left him with his grandmother and came to the United States to work so that they could give their children a better life. They sent money back to Mexico to put food on the table and shelter their children. Eight years later, Carlos came to the U.S. to be reunited with his parents. He hoped that in the U.S. he would be able to pursue a dream that seemed all but impossible for a poor student in Mexico: attending college.

“Living in Mexico, it feels as if every door is closed because there are not enough jobs for everyone; people starve; not everyone gets to go to college,” said Carlos. “Although my parents always tried to give me everything, they couldn’t....How was I going to afford college? That’s why I came here.”

In Mexico, it is even harder for a poor family to send their children to college than it is here in the United States. Tuition is unaffordable for families with such meager incomes, and those lucky enough to get financial aid from the government have to be excellent students. By coming to the U.S., Carlos thought, he could reunite with his parents and achieve his dream of attending college so that he could learn, have a successful career, and not worry any more about where his next meal was coming from. “I basically had no other option,” he said.

The irony is this: Although one of Carlos’s big motivations for coming the U.S. was to obtain a college education, he can’t afford it because he is an undocumented immigrant. He’s in the U.S. illegally, without a green card. That means he doesn’t qualify for government financial aid, and he can’t legally work in this country to save up money for college.

Looking to Albany

Carlos is one of thousands of students in New York who want the state to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that would help undocumented students get access to financial aid so that they can attend college. The DREAM Act won’t grant legal status to undocumented people in New York, but it will make them eligible for state sources of financial aid, like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides lower-income students with up to $5,000 a year that doesn’t have to be paid back. In order to be eligible, students would have to have arrived in the U.S. as minors, lived in the country continuously for five years, and graduated from high school in New York State.

The idea for a DREAM Act began several years ago, when a bill was proposed in the U.S. Congress. But in 2010, despite support from President Barack Obama, that bill failed to pass. The lack of a strong federal law is why some states—like New York—are trying to pass their own versions of the DREAM Act. According to The New York Times, 13 states, including New York, already allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. But only three—Texas, New Mexico, and California—allow undocumented students to receive state government tuition aid. That’s one of the main things that supporters of the New York DREAM Act are fighting for.

Across the country, students who support some version of the DREAM Act are organizing to get it passed in their states. Carlos started a group at the school he and I both attend, Flushing International High School (FIHS), called the Dream Team. It is a group of documented and undocumented immigrant students and leaders (teachers, counselors, and others) who support the DREAM Act.

Dream Team meetings are a safe place for undocumented students to use their voice, educate the community about issues affecting immigrants, and work to stop discrimination and inequality. Here, they know that nobody is going to call the police and deport them.

image by Percy Tejeda

“In the Dream Team, we’re trying to help undocumented students have more opportunities in the future,” said Tania Barbecho, FIHS student and member of the group.

What a Waste

Carlos and Tania are two of the thousands of students from the city who went to Albany in February to lobby state lawmakers to pass the DREAM Act. They found a lot of lawmakers who supported them. However, a few others disagreed with it.

Some think it’s unfair that undocumented immigrants will be able to share in state financial aid when many American citizens and documented immigrants are struggling to afford college. But those who support the act say everyone deserves the opportunity for an education, especially kids who had no choice in coming to the U.S.

Of the approximately 10,000 undocumented students who graduate from NYC high schools each year, only a small percentage attend college. What is left for the rest? There are too many talented people working illegal jobs that pay less than the minimum wage, selling drugs, or going to prison and spending the rest of their lives doing nothing that will benefit the country. What a waste.

I know many people at my school who are undocumented immigrants. There are talented students who would like to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, and architects. But they get frustrated sometimes and doubt the point of even finishing high school if their dreams will die the day they graduate.

They don’t deserve that. People judge them without knowing the reason why they had to move to the U.S. In many cases, poverty, war, or political persecution brought them here. Most undocumented students did not come by choice, and they deserve in this country of liberty the opportunity to succeed.

“If the DREAM Act is finally passed, I would be so happy because I know undocumented students would have a better life and education in the future,” said FIHS student and member of the Dream Team Lobsang Chokey.

“I think it would be a huge victory. It’s not the final victory but it is the beginning of a national debate around immigrant rights,” said Tania Romero, a social worker at FIHS who guides the Dream Team in every meeting. “There are thousands of undocumented students in New York City who would finally be able to pursue their dream of going to college and to become the powerful leaders and citizens that they can be by getting the financial aid to do so.”

No Hope Back Home

A lot is at stake for thousands of students like Carlos M. If the DREAM Act doesn’t pass, he plans on returning to Mexico, which in many ways feels foreign to him now. Once again he’ll be far away from his parents. College, most likely, will be completely out of reach.

“It’s not that I don’t miss my homeland; the problem is that I’m so used to this country that I don’t think it would be the same thing as living here in the U.S. But if they don’t pass the bill and I stay here, what’s my future going to be like?” Carlos said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, Mexico is beautiful’ when you go to Cancun as a tourist, but do you know how people in poor places like Puebla live? What are my chances for the future in ‘beautiful Mexico?’”

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(NYC-2012-05-09)

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