Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Important DREAM Act stalled by Republicans

Yesterday, Republican lawmakers stalled a Senate measure that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or, more commonly, the DREAM Act)
Supporters of the DREAM Act, which provides citizenship for children of illegal immigration through service, sit in on a a press conference on the upcoming Senate procedural vote on the National Defense Authorization Act in Washington on September 21, 2010. The upcoming bill has legislation to authorize the DREAM Act and repeal Dont' Ask, Don't Tell,  UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom
, would provide immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools, are "of good moral character", and arrived in the U.S. as minors to obtain temporary residency. During the six-year period of temporary residency, these students must complete at least 2 years of a college degree and be in good academic standing, or have served in the military and received an honorable discharge. After the six years, the students (or former military personnel) who have met the conditions of the Act can apply for legal permanent resident status.

Versions of the bill were circulating as early as 2001. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last week that the DREAM Act would be included as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011. While the act would "give hope" to undocumented students, Republicans blocked the measure, claiming "the Obama administration of seeking amnesty for illegal immigrants through administrative changes within the Department of Homeland Security."

I have been a proponent of this bill since its first incarnation in 2001. Since minors cannot obtain permanent status without their parents, the DREAM Act would give undocumented students the chance to remain legally in the United States. Many of these students came to the U.S. at such a young age that they do not remember their home countries. These same students work hard to complete their high school education and many go on to college. Of those who don't go to college, a lack of financial aid, rather than a lack of motivation, is usually the reason. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal higher education grants, such as the Pell grant. The fact that children who grow up and succeed in U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools cannot apply for federal grants is another issue, entirely. (And one, quite frankly, that I hope to see addressed as soon as possible.)

I grew up in a low-income family. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in a college-preparatory program for students who would be the first in their families to attend college. While in the program, I met a number of students who worked hard (some worked much harder than me) to excel in school. Many of those students were immigrants. Some came here legally, others illegally. Some had acheived residency or citizenship, others were undocumented. What shouldn't matter though, is the status of children.

Children have no choice about whether or not to accompany their parents who arrive in the United States illegally, and many of them are not even aware of their undocumented status. Even if they were, I find it hard to believe that people would deny them the right to financial aid in college, or a legal path to citizenship. Immigration isn't something that shady people do in the middle of the night to "stick it" to the United States. They aren't looking to get something for nothing; they're looking to provide better lives for their children. These are real people just trying to do what they can to raise their families in safety.

When thinking about immigration laws,
Newly sworn in U.S. citizens recite the Pledge of Allegiance after taking the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington on September 20, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom
we must consider the real people who are involved. When Poland declared martial law in the 1980s, my friend Marta (then just a toddler) fled the country with her parents and arrived in the U.S. illegally. My friend Jorge left the Dominican Republic as an eight-year-old, after his family fled the violence of their neighborhood that resulted in his getting shot while playing in his own yard. Maria came to the country from Columbia when her family was threatened by corrupt government officials engaging in the drug trade.

Not only were these people my friends, they were hard-working students. They wanted to be hard-working Americans, but couldn't become citizens without their parents. Their parents, like many others, were too afraid of deportation to go through the process of applying for residency. We should not only provide a way for families to apply for citizenship without risking deportation, we should make sure that children have a way to apply as well. The DREAM Act is an important first step in investing in the future of our country. Any child who grew up in the United States and successfully completed his or her public education should be allowed to apply to and attend college. If that child also needs financial aid, he should be allowed to apply for and receive it. That same child should also have access to a clear path to citizenship.

I am saddened by the great numbers of people who oppose the DREAM Act and take a strong stance against immigration. I find it ironic that people want to "take back the country" when nearly all of them are immigrants themselves. Sure, many of them come from families that have been here for generations, but nearly everyone immigrated here at some point in their family history. Native Americans are so christened for a reason -- they were native to the Americas. The rest of us, when you get right down to it, are simply immigrants. Whether or not our families came here legally, we have benefited from all this country has to offer, and have blended our cultural histories to become one of the most diverse and beautiful nations in the world.

I simply want more children to be able to have access to what I had: a solid education and the ability to "make something" of myself. The DREAM Act will help children achieve their goals of becoming productive and active members of our society.

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