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Keeping the Dream Alive: Undocumented Students Eye Uncertain Future, as Federal Reform Stalls

Kari Lydersen

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Marcos dreams of being an architect. Maria wants to be a child psychologist and a teacher. Julia isn’t sure what type of career she would pursue, but she loves writing and has already written a play.

The three are high-school students at Santa Fe South School in Oklahoma City. They say they love school — even the public charter’s unusually long nearly eight-hour days — and they want to make something of their lives.

But when asked about college, all three look away and demure from answering. Eventually they talk tentatively of attending a local community college and then maybe transferring to Oklahoma State University. But, Marcos says, they find it hard to plan for college since they are undocumented immigrants in a state known for anti-immigrant laws and policies. On a daily basis they worry about being deported or having their parents deported. When Marcos and his friends practice for track meets or when Julia and her friends hop across a creek, they joke that they are running from the migra.

Discouragement and frustration about their future prospects, given their legal status, are so strong that both Marcos and Julia are considering going back to Mexico once they finish high school, even though they know their opportunities there would be much more limited, and drug war violence would be a serious risk. Several of Julia’s family members in Mexico have already been killed in the drug-related violence which now touches nearly everyone in certain parts of the country even, if they have no involvement with the government or the drug trade.

None of the three students have heard of the proposed DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. a path to citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military. But they are perfect examples of the young people the proposed law is meant to serve, allowing them greater opportunity in the country that is for all practical purposes their home and allowing the U.S. the benefit of new eager, skilled workers.

The future of the DREAM Act and immigration reform in general looks precarious right now, with many immigrants rights advocates angry about the tenor of the U.S. Supreme Court April 25 hearing on Arizona’s SB 1070 anti-immigrant law; and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney pushing a strident anti-immigrant message.

Florida Republican Senator and possible vice presidential candidate Marco Rubio is also proposing an alternative (still-evolving) version of the DREAM Act that would eliminate the path to permanent residency or citizenship for students attending college. It has been reported the bill would offer green cards, but probably not citizenship, to those serving in the military.

Rubio’s version — which Romney has declined to support—seems a pale imitation of the original proposal, which might win Republicans some Latino votes in November elections but would do much less to facilitate the economic, intellectual and social benefits that young undocumented immigrants can offer American society if they are allowed and encouraged to pursue higher education and professional careers as potential citizens.

Much attention around the DREAM Act has focused on the fact that 1.1 million undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children are essentially Americans and hence deserve the right to attend college and become citizens. This logic is hard to argue with. But a less-featured angle is the idea that by attending college and pursuing professional careers or entrepreneurship, many of these students will actually become job-creators” who directly or indirectly create more jobs for U.S.-born citizens.

Undocumented young people with college and career dreams are likely to be disproportionately more hard-working, ambitious, creative and innovative than their peer group as a whole because of the extra obstacles they’ve had to overcome thus far, a point stressed by undocumented award-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, as I wrote earlier this week.

In Colorado, the future economic impact of DREAMers, as they have come to be known, is part of the argument over state legislation setting different tuition rates for in-state, out-of-state and undocumented students. The so-called tuition equity” bill could lower existing tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, but they would still pay more than documented in-state residents, and they would not be eligible for state (or federal) financial aid.

Pundits are arguing that undocumented Colorado students should pay more than other in-state residents because the unlikelihood of comprehensive immigration reform or even the federal DREAM Act passing any time soon means undocumented students are less likely to be able to contribute fully to the economy in the near future. In other words, this argument goes: the failure of immigration reform on the federal level means undocumented students will not be able to get good jobs, even if they succeed at Colorado universities, so they are not a worthy investment of state dollars.

It is a somewhat perverse example of circular logic: the fact that promising youth face legal barriers to fulfilling their potential being used to justify more barriers in the form of higher tuition.

Marcos, Julia and Maria — who talked with me and other journalists during a conference sponsored by the Institute for Justice and Journalism this week — are obviously confident, poised, funny, smart and kind — exactly the type of people most anyone would want to see as their child’s psychologist or teacher, their architect or the local scribe. And in keeping with those qualities, they don’t seem in the least bitter about the situation they find themselves in, but simply sad and resigned to perhaps never having the chance to realize their dreams.

Their attitudes seemed to me a sharp contrast to that of many high school and college students in cities like L.A. or Chicago, where immigrants rights movements have much political power and youth bravely speak out demanding the right to education and citizenship.

For example, the national Immigrant Youth Justice League promotes the slogan Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.” Chicago activist Tania Unzueta explained to journalists at the Oklahoma conference that this is partly a counter to the well-meaning but confused argument that it is not the fault” of undocumented youth that they came here illegally — with the implicit insinuation that their parents are indeed to blame for breaking the law.

These youth activists say that they deserve respect and opportunity because of what they have to offer to the United States, just as their parents deserve respect and opportunity because of what they have already contributed to our economy and society.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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