Breaking Down Barriers
Undocumented students and their families face challenges that are unimaginable to those of us who can take for granted the convenience of having legal citizenship. For these residents, daily life is filled with obstacles, especially when they are required to interact with government and public organizations. Most undocumented families struggle to reach a subsistent level of income, and financing a college education is impossible without aid. Before the passage of the California Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) in 2011, undocumented students were ineligible to receive financial aid from federal, state, and many private sources.
The DREAM Act is composed of two clauses. AB 130 allows undocumented students to apply for and receive non-state funded scholarships for public colleges and universities. AB 131 allows undocumented students to apply for and receive state-funded aid, such as Cal and Chafee Grants and community college fee waivers. The application was made available on April 2, 2012.
Thus far, 16,000 students have applied to the program, of which only 9,000 are eligible based on their application.
Professor Tomas Summers Sandoval, who is Associate Professor of Chicano and Latino History at Pomona and has worked with undocumented students, praises the act but is wary of its long term effectiveness.
“The [CA DREAM Act] is a great thing, but a limited thing. State financial aid in California is not a generous pot,” said Summers Sandoval.
Diana and Jose
One of these students is Jose Ortiz, a senior at UCLA and the brother of Diana Ortiz (PO ’14), who came to the US from Mexico in 1998 with their mother. The Ortiz family has worked hard to make ends meet, and Diana said that her and Jose’s lives as students were “defined by the struggle to find available resources that allowed [them] to overcome obstacles caused by [their] immigration status.”
Ortiz witnessed her older brother’s struggle as an undocumented student at UCLA and knew that the best option for her was to attend a private university that allowed her to receive aid from a source independent of federal and state regulations. This pressure pushed Ortiz to the top of her class, but even her academic success did not guarantee her ability to attend college.
Ortiz commented on the relevance of the DREAM act to her brother’s college experience.
“The passage of the California DREAM Act will impact my life because it will impact my brother’s life,” said Ortiz, referring to Jose’s DREAM application. The first of the DREAM funds will be dispersed in January 2013, helping Jose and the 9,000 other undocumented scholars pursue their education with the aid that they deserve as long term and high achieving residents of California.
While California’s DREAM Act is a great way to help undocumented students in California afford a college education, the Act does not provide a path to citizenship. Because it does not provide legal work authorization, the Act leaves recent grads vulnerable to the same uncertainties and struggles as other undocumented workers.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
President Obama announced a new policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June of 2012. DACA defers deportation of illegal immigrants for two years and affords them the opportunity to apply for legal work permits if they meet certain criteria. Eligible applicants must have entered the US before the age of 16, have resided in the US continuously since 2007, and must have been in the US on June 15th, 2012. Applicants must also either be in school or have graduated from high school.
Eric Martinez, PO ’14, has already applied to DACA and is awaiting his application decision. After losing his father to a devastating disease, Eric’s mother brought him and his brother from Mexico to Dallas, Texas in search of a better life. Even though Texas has its own version of the DREAM Act, Eric has still faced enormous difficulty.
DACA will allow Eric to finally attain a drivers license and a work permit. When asked about how this will affect his life, Eric expressed excitement at the prospect of finally being able to drive legally without “the worry of getting pulled over and not having a license to show,” and added, “summer jobs? I’ve hardly known the meaning of that.”
Ortiz has been working to complete her DACA application, which has been challenging.
“[The process] is very stressful considering that I have to balance academics, extracurricular, personal care, and invest time in this very important application that will open many doors for me in the near future,” said Ortiz.
Eric and Diana are not alone in this experience—since release of the application, which has a $465 fee, 100,000 have been submitted, and 29 people have been notified of their offer of deferred status.
Summers Sandoval, who has worked with DACA applicants, is optimistic about the Act’s future.
“[DACA] is much more of a game changer [than the CA DREAM Act]. It is a huge psychological change—to be able to envision a future is a profound asset [to a student],” said Summers Sandoval.
Like the California DREAM Act, DACA is a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. Martinez, Ortiz and Ortiz’s brother still have no path to citizenship. Both acts, however, are a step in the right direction, providing untold opportunity to students like Martinez and the Ortizes. According to the Center for American Progress, passage of the federal DREAM Act would add $329 billion to the US economy and create 1.4 million new jobs by 2030.
Not only would the federal DREAM Act promote economic growth by incorporating intelligent and hardworking residents into the formal economy, but it would improve the lives of these residents in intangible ways as well.
“[The DREAM Act] would change my life, my family’s life, and [the lives] of many of my community members,” said Ortiz.
Martinez is also excited about the implications of the DREAM Act for a student’s college experience.
“From college admissions, to employment, to studying abroad, having had [the] federal DREAM Act pass when I was younger would have greatly facilitated much of my life,” said Martinez.
Immigrants and the Election
This election year has demonstrated the power of Latino voters, many of whom are strongly invested in reforming immigration policy to create a more welcoming environment toward immigrants.
According to the PEW Hispanic Center, a record 23.7 million eligible voters are Latino, which is a 22% increase over the last presidential election year. Many of these voters, old and new, support Obama: in states with large Latino populations such as Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, Obama shows a large lead over Romney.
Hispanic voters’ preference for the Democratic Party is easy to understand. Mr. Romney has expressed his intention to end DACA if elected and has articulated only vague conceptual plans to replace the temporary program with a more permanent solution.
“While there are other reasons I support the Democratic Party, pro-immigrant legislation is definitely at the top of my list,” said Martinez. “Although much more can and should be done by the party, at least some progress is made by the Democrats compared to the regress brought forth by the Republicans.”
Despite debate over each candidate’s immigration platform, recent surveys have found that a huge margin of voters support the federal DREAM Act. 74% of surveyed participants support the DREAM Act, compared to 20% who do not support it. Even amongst Republicans, the DREAM Act had wide margins of support—63% are in support of the act, versus 29% in opposition.
As the election draws closer, voters must remember to weigh the implications of their vote on all parts of society. These undocumented students, workers and family members are just as much of a part of our country as every other citizen, and they deserve the tools that allow them to thrive as contributing members of our nation. If we truly believe in the efficacy of free market competition for creating innovation, why shouldn’t a group of people that could contribute to this innovation be included in driving progress and development?