Francisco, an undocumented student who moved to the U.S. from Mexico at 11 years old, knows the feeling of isolation that many teenagers feel throughout middle and high school as their differences are looked down upon.
But while most students lose this feeling of isolation by college, Francisco – who chose not to give his last name for legal reasons – said that the undocumented students never lose this feeling.
“You can’t drive, and you always have that fear about driving,” he said. “A lot of your friends want you to go out with them when you turn 21, but you can’t. You end up isolating yourself.”
Francisco is a senior biochemical engineering major and the president of Scholars Promoting Education, Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK). Tuesday night, SPEAK held an event called iDream: of a Liberated Future, a presentation on undocumented students. The event featured two experts on undocumented immigrants and two student accounts of growing up undocumented.
The event centered around the federal DREAM act which would permit undocumented alien students who graduate from U.S. high schools, who are of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. as minors and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.
In 2001, California passed Assembly Bill 540, which qualified undocumented students to be exempt from paying much higher out-of-state tuition fees. AB 540 had significant impact on the lives of undocumented students, who previously had no plans to go to college, said Dr. Alejandra Rincon, author of “Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Sí Se Puede!” at the event.
The DREAM act would provide this same service to the entire country, instead of only the 11 states that have laws similar to California’s.
Rincon explained that while many undocumented students attend college and seem like just an average student, many are also constantly fighting deportation. She stressed that the entire discourse on immigration needs to be reevaluated and rearticulated.
“We use words like illegal to talk about immigrants as if just being alive is against the law,” she said. “No human being is illegal.”
While lecturers can urge politicians and citizens alike to change the way the think about immigrants, growing up undocumented in America is a constant battle that is for the most part a closeted one, Francisco said.
“I’m a little bit more comfortable [telling people] now that I am a senior,” he added. “Throughout the undergraduate experience you learn to accept your situation and learn not to be embarrassed because you’ve come to this country illegally.”
Attorney Mark Silverman, director of immigrant policy, also spoke at the immigrant legal resource center. He explained that if we work hard in the next month the DREAM Act will be passed into law.
“We all should get on the DREAM express and start shoveling coal as soon as possible,” he said.
Silverman went on to explain how immigration reform will only help our economy, which has fallen on turbulent times.
“The social security card is the most counterfeitable document that our government distributes because that’s how our government works,” Silverman said.
The DREAM Act is supported by most democrats in Congress, and opposed by most Republicans, although there are exceptions on both sides. Silverman projects that the DREAM Act could get 58 to 62 votes in the senate right now, and is confident that its passing is close.
Meanwhile, those who gave testimonies emphasized that students who immigrated with their parents to America as children still struggle with their place in society as undocumented students.
Speakers also memorialized two DREAM advocates who died in a car accident last Saturday. Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, two undocumented students who graduated from UCLA and pursued graduate studies at Ivy League institutions were examples that speakers gave of exemplary students forced to live in fear of deportation due to the U.S.’s immigration system.
“Graduation for many of my friends isn’t a rite of passage to becoming a responsible adult,” Felix said before she died. “Rather it is the last phase in which they can feel a sense of belonging as an American but after graduation they will be left behind by their American friends. My friends are without the prospect of obtaining a job that will utilize the degree they’ve earned. My friends will become just another undocumented immigrant.”
Groups such as SPEAK help raise awareness for the issue on campus and Francisco urged anyone interested or passionate about the topic to join them in their cause. Francisco said that this is not just a Chicano or Latino issue. Only half of undocumented, AB 540 students are Latino, other Asian groups make up the rest.
“We are asking people to contact their local governments and advocate for the DREAM Act,” he said.
The DREAM Act helps prepare future leaders for the workforce. At the end of his speech, Silverman held up a DREAM shirt he once received.
On the shirt read, “I’m a professional. I’m bilingual. I’m ready to work. So pass the DREAM Act.”
ANDY VERDEROSA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.