By Aura Bogado
Jennifer was three days away from graduating from Yale when I met her for lunch in New Haven, Conn., last May. Like most in her class, she was excited to have her family in town for the event and was busy packing and preparing to say goodbye to the small city she had called home for the past four years. Unlike most of the graduating seniors, however, Jennifer was unsure about her future. She would soon have a piece of paper called a Yale degree, but she was missing a piece of paper that would grant her citizenship. Jennifer and nearly 2 million other young people live lives of legal uncertainty.
Born in war-torn Colombia, Jennifer, who prefers not to be identified by her last name, doesn’t remember coming with her mother to the United States to join her father when she was 13 months old. Despite the fact her father had papers, she waited more than 20 years without a change in her immigration status. Jennifer was so well adapted that it wasn’t until middle school that she realized she wasn’t born in the U.S. Her parents, hoping her immigration status would be adjusted somewhere along the way, made excuses when she wanted to get a driver’s license or a job. It didn’t dawn on her until she started filling out college applications, and realized she didn’t have a Social Security number, that she was undocumented.
Nevertheless, she dedicated herself to her schoolwork, earned a scholarship to the Ivy League university of her choice and four years later graduated from Yale with distinction. But her inability to acquire even a state identification card meant that as her classmates were booking flights to start new careers around the world, Jennifer would have to be driven back to her home in Texas, where she thought she might be able to work baby-sitting neighbors’ kids for the summer.
Jennifer would have directly benefited from passage of the Dream Act, which was blocked in the U.S. Senate last Saturday. The legislation would have allowed undocumented students—1.9 million by one estimate—who graduated from high school or earned a GED to gain conditional lawful permanent residence, provided they had lived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and had been present in the country for more than five years. Once students either achieved two years toward a bachelor’s degree or served two years in the armed services, the conditional portion of the status would be removed, allowing them to apply for full citizenship in the country they call home.
The House had already passed the measure, and many were hopeful that the Senate would do the same. After all, since the first version of the legislation was introduced as a bipartisan effort nine years ago, the Dream Act has gained massive support from factions as varied as community groups, universities, business interests and even the Department of Homeland Security. Many have blamed a small group of Democrats who voted against the bill in the lame-duck session. Some students who would be most affected by the legislation claim that powerful lobbyists, in addition to important politicians, worked against their interests.
Mohammad Abdollahi, who co-founded DreamActivist.org, says that by last February, Washington insiders were privately conceding that comprehensive immigration reform would not pass this year. Knowing that a larger, all-encompassing bill would not proceed, Abdollahi and other undocumented students began to work toward reviving the Dream Act. They felt strongly that, with the proper support, they could get the legislation passed and signed this year. But Dreamers, as this group of students call themselves, say they were discouraged from working for reform. In a video posted on YouTube, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., patronized a group of Dreamers camped out in front of Sen. John McCain’s offices in July demanding that the Arizona Republican move forward on the act. Gutierrez is heard telling the Dreamers that the entire Hispanic Congressional Caucus “disagree[s] with you in your analysis of the present moment.” Despite Gutierrez’s scolding, the Dreamers knew the bill had broad support and they worked to get it to the floor for a vote.
When the Dream Act cleared the House earlier in December, it was the first time in 20 years that a pro-immigration bill passed either chamber of Congress—all because a compelling group of affected students worked nonstop to make it happen. But they didn’t enjoy the sustained support of a large number of Democrats, who told them to wait until comprehensive reform happens at a later date. Tired of waiting for that magical piece of legislation, Dreamers worked day and night. They came up five votes short in the Senate. They say the help of Washington’s powerful could have changed that, but the powerful didn’t believe enough in the Dream to make it a reality. Comprehensive immigration reform supporters, politicians chief among them, may have clung to their ideal so tightly that they didn’t see the potential for success stemming from a band of affected students.
For now, the Dreamers have a lot to be proud of. Like Jennifer, they continue to graduate and contribute to their society any way they can. During a time when states increasingly criminalize brown people, they managed to get support for a pro-immigrant bill in the House. They also set a new model of dignity for being “undocumented and unafraid,” celebrating their marginalized status as a core from which to build a vibrant new movement. This grass-roots group of students has earned the respect of legislators, educators, media pundits and others. Perhaps Washington insiders should listen.
AP / Jason Redmond
Leslie Perez, left, and Grecia Mondragon react to televised coverage as the Dream Act fails to move forward in the Senate.