The APC Blog
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
CUNY Students Mobilize for DREAM Act: Proposed Legislation Would Create Instant Path to Citizenship for 360,000 Undocumented Immigrant YouthBy John Tarleton
After studying forensic psychology at John Jay College for the past seven years, Karla could be making $30-40 per hour in her chosen field. Instead, Karla, 25, pursues her Masters by day and toils by night as a waitress paid off the books at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. She hopes that Congress will finally pass the DREAM Act this year, which would provide an education-based path to citizenship for herself and hundreds of thousands of other young people who were brought to the U.S. as child immigrants by their undocumented parents.
“I have to study,” said Karla, who immigrated from Mexico with her mother when she was eight and has no close family ties in her native country. “I have nothing else to look forward to except to waitress for the rest of my life.”
A DREAM DEFERRED
The The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has been introduced in every session of Congress since 2001 and was narrowly defeated by a Senate filibuster in 2007. The proposed legislation would cover undocumented students, who, like Karla, came to the United States before turning 16, have not yet turned 30, and have lived here for at least five years. Conditional legal status will be available to students who have completed high school, received a Graduate Equivalency Diploma (GED) or have been admitted to an institution of higher education. That status will be valid for up to six years. During that time, if the student receives a college degree, completes two years of a four-year college program or serves two years in the military, he or she can obtain permanent residence.
“The positive impact in our community would be terrific,” said Monica Trujillo, an assistant professor of biology at Queensborough Community College (QCC). “These are the ones who against all odds are in college. If we can get them a job that pays them according to the level they are educated, they would be terrific workers.”
Close to 75,000 undocumented youth graduate from U.S. high schools annually but only a small percentage goes onto college. A 2006 study by the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 360,000 young people aged 18 to 24 would be immediately eligible for the conditional status under the DREAM Act. The Institute also projected that an additional 715,000 unauthorized youth between ages 5 and 17 would become eligible for conditional and then permanent legal status under the proposed legislation sometime in the future.
A 2006 report by Charles Barron, chair of the City Council Committee on Higher Education, estimated that 6,500 of about 80,000 immigrant students enrolled at CUNY were undocumented. Marisol Ramos, a core member of New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), believes that 10,000-20,000 undocumented youth are currently enrolled at CUNY.
Undocumented college students are eligible for in-state tuition in New York but still face a number of hurdles including lack of access to financial aid and most scholarships as well as bleak job prospects when they graduate.
“This is definitely a marker for this generation. It transcends race, class and gender and sexual orientation,” said Ramos, 24, a 2006 graduate of Hunter College. “We are being defined by this iniquity.”
“It’s in CUNY’s best interest to support the Dream Act,” said Donna Gill, a long-time financial aid officer at Hunter. “With the DREAM Act, these students will be eligible for financial aid which would be advantageous to CUNY.”
Determined to change the situation, young “Dreamers” from NYSYLC like Karla and Marisol Ramos are engaged in a whirlwind of activities this spring, meeting with elected representatives and college presidents, gathering thousands of signed cards and petition signatures and holding a rally outside Sen. Chuck Schumer’s mid-Manhattan office in their multi-hued caps-and-gowns when the DREAM Act was formally introduced in Congress on March 26.
On April 2, local DREAM Act supporters received a boost when New York’s rookie senator Kirsten Gillibrand signed on as a DREAM Act co-sponsor, reversing the hardline anti-immigrant stance she had previously taken as an upstate member of Congress.
“There was a unified message from various groups that the Dream Act was a key part of immigration reform and it was essential that she support it,” said Walter Barrientos, another core member of NYSYLC. Barrientos, a graduate of Baruch College, attended meetings that a number of immigrant rights groups held with Gillibrand shortly after she was appointed to the Senate in January.
Other New York City area members of Congress who have co-sponsored the bill include Schumer, as well as Representatives Jose Serrano (Bronx), Yvette Clarke (Brooklyn), Edolphous Towns (Brooklyn), Gregory Meeks (Queens), Gary Ackerman (Queens), Anthony Weiner (Queens), Joseph Crowley (Queens), Eliot Engel (Bronx/Westchester), Nita Lowey (Westchester), Carolyn McCarthy (Nassau County) and Steve Israel (Suffolk County). Much of the rest of the local delegation is expected to eventually sign on as DREAM Act co-sponsors.
One prominent hold-out has been Brooklyn congressperson Nydia Velasquez, Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who would like to see the DREAM Act bundled into a comprehensive immigration reform package.
NYSYLC is also working to gain the support of Rep. Michael McMahon of Staten Island, a freshman Democrat in a traditionally Republican district. On April 3, five NYSYLC members met with a McMahahon aide. “He said McMahon wasn’t aware of the DREAM Act, but thought he would support something like it,” said a member of the group.
NYSYLC, which is largely made up of past and present CUNY students, has also been training local college and high school students to become more effective advocates for their cause. On Feb. 7, they held a day-long training session for about 40 local college and high school students where they provided an in-depth history of the DREAM Act and shared skills and strategies for coalition building and for effectively communicating their message to peers, community allies and the media.
“It was brilliant. It was great to witness,” said Joel Kuszai, A QCC Assistant Professor of English. “This is their civil rights movement. This is the moment to stand up.” Kuszai is working with students at QCC to launch a newspaper by and for undocumented youth.
QCC Steps Up
With a large immigrant student population, QCC has seen the most active DREAM Act organizing of any CUNY campus. Students tabled for the DREAM Act on March 25 and hold bi-weekly informational meetings with fellow students who want to learn more. They are raising money to charter a bus to go to Washington, D.C. on June 23 to lobby Congress. Also in the works are a pro-DREAM Act rock concert tentatively slated for the fall, a film day in which short documentaries about undocumented students would be shown and a play about undocumented students to be performed by QCC drama program students.
For Arancha Borrachero, a QCC Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, working for the passage of the DREAM Act is a continuation of her work as an educator.
“We give the best of ourselves to the students in our classes,” Borrachero said. “We teach so our students can become the best people, the best citizens in our society. It would be very fragmentary to support one thing and not another. To be coherent, we need to support this [the Dream Act].”
QCC President Eduardo Marti has also been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act.
Ramos said other CUNY campuses with strong Dream Act organizing are CCNY, Hostos, Hunter and Baruch.
‘This is the Year’
NYSYLC is the New York anchor of United We Dream, a nationwide coalition of youth-led groups organizing to win approval of the DREAM Act. It relies heavily on online organizing tools like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter and has a strong presence in as many as a dozen states, and has active members in all 50 states.
“Undocumented youth often feel disempowered,” Ramos said. “To be part of a national movement is cool.”
Despite past setbacks, advocates believe that this is their year given the expanded Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, President Barack Obama’s past support for the bill and the willingness of some Republican senators to cross party lines and help provide the 60 votes need to thwart a filibuster.
According to dreamact.info, 52 Senators are considered supporters of the legislation while another 21 are rated as undecided.
“We’re getting people signing on who were afraid to before with the politics of the last administration,” Barrientos said. “There is definitely a shift in how this issue is being seen.”
”This is the year to be active,” Ramos added. “If we don’t pass it this year, it will die off.”
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