Gotham Gazette

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The DREAM Act and Immigrant Youth

Most college students look toward graduation with a sense of excitement and new possibilities, but for 21-year-old Angie, an honors student at a private Christian college in New York, it is with heightened anxiety and uncertainty that she begins her final semester of college in January.

“I’m worried; I don’t know what’s going to happen after graduation,” says Angie, who asked that her last name not be used.

Angie’s worries are rooted in more than post-adolescent angst. She and her parents are Colombian immigrants who came to this country nearly 20 years ago on tourist visas, when she was three years old, and for a variety of reasons, remained here after their visas had expired.

“My father decided to bring me and my mom here in order to find better opportunities and to escape the guerilla war that was going on. Anything was better than living in Colombia at that time."

Angie’s father started as a gas station attendant in 1987 and has worked his way up to owning and operating a successful cleaning business. He bought his family a house in the suburbs and pays his fair share of taxes. “My dad thought it was going to be easy to get legal status here,” says Angie, “but it hasn’t worked out that way.”

She is fortunate in that her father’s hard work has made it possible for her to afford college. But now, with graduation nearing, she is facing extremely limited prospects because of her lack of immigration status. Graduate school is out of the question for financial reasons. As for job prospects, they are bleak: despite her 3.6 grade point average, she will be shut out from lawful employment in the United States. And, as always, there looms the threat of deportation if she is ever found in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such stories have prompted efforts to pass federal legislation that would grant lawful permanent residency -- “green cards” -- to the estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant youth who graduate from U.S. high schools each year, on the condition that they complete at least two years of college or military service. The legislation, known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act (S.2075), also would eliminate restrictions on a state’s ability to provide in-state tuition to state residents without regard to immigration status.

To qualify for relief under the DREAM Act, students must have come to the United States at least five years ago and must have been under age 16 at the time they entered the country. These students would qualify for conditional permanent resident status upon acceptance to college, graduation from high school, or award of a GED certificate. Conditional permanent resident status would be granted for six years, after which the students must petition to have the conditions removed. During the six years, students must graduate from college or accrue at least two years of higher education or military service.

The DREAM Act would create a powerful incentive for young people to succeed in their education and stay out of trouble, and immigrant advocates believe this bill should be a no-brainer. For the past four years, however, despite broad bipartisan support, the DREAM Act has repeatedly been prevented from going to a vote by the House and Senate leaders.

The bill was reintroduced in Congress on November 18, 2005 by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Richard Lugar (R-IL). The re-introduction of the DREAM Act comes at a time when the broader immigration debate has become increasingly politicized and contentious. Young persons who are eager to attend college or join the workforce, however, should not be stuck in limbo until Congress resolves every controversial immigration issue, say immigrant advocates. Though the fate of the DREAM Act remains uncertain, advocates are hopeful that Congress will take these young people off the immigration battlefield.

Norman Eng is a lawyer and policy associate with The New York Immigration Coalition who writes on immigration policy for that organization.  

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