Children of Illegal Immigrants Fight for the American DREAM

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Protesters want to keep the DREAM alive. Photo: Korean Resource Center/Creative Commons

Lizbeth Mateo moved to the United States with her family when she was 14 years old. After graduating from high school, she attended California State University Northridge, and became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

Just before noon on Monday, dressed in caps and gowns, Lizbeth and four other young adults in their twenties walked into the lobby of Senator John McCain’s Tucson office and staged a sit-in. They were calling on McCain (R-AZ) to sponsor legislation known as the DREAM Act. The bill would open a path to citizenship for student children of illegal immigrants.

What seemed like a harmless demonstration was anything but for Lizbeth and two other protesters, who are illegal immigrants. Staging a sit-in at a public office building meant certain detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the risk of deportation.

The demonstrators were arrested on Monday evening for misdemeanor trespassing. Lizbeth and her friends now face imminent deportation.

According to a website created by DREAM Act supporters, the students’ detention sparked solidarity vigils, hunger strikes, and other acts of protest across the country.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act) was introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives on March 26, 2009.

The bill would mandate that illegal immigrants who arrive here as children, and graduate from U.S. high schools, can be granted conditional permanent residency for six years. Provided they attend college and earn a two year degree, or serve in the military for at least two years, they would then be eligible for citizenship.

Comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system is unlikely this year. Jessica Colotl, a 21-year-old college student who immigrated illegally with her parents 10 years ago, still hopes that Congress will pass the DREAM Act as separate legislation.

Jessica was an excellent student with two semesters left at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta when she was pulled over on March 29 by a campus police officer for a routine traffic violation. The only documentation she could produce was an expired Mexican passport. Jessica was arrested and taken to a county jail.

On May 5, she was transferred to the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama to await deportation to Mexico. Protests by Latino groups, demonstrations at the Georgia Capitol by her sorority sisters, and a letter from the university’s president helped earn Jessica a one-year deferral on her deportation so she could finish college.

Jessica will be allowed to apply for an extension next year, but her ultimate goal, she said in a recent press conference, is to live here legally and permanently. That can happen if the DREAM Act becomes law.

Phil Kent, a spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, a national group opposed to illegal immigration, was disappointed with the decision to defer Colotl’s deportation. He told the New York Times that she should not have received special treatment because of her age or education level.

“Ironically, she says she wants to go on to law school, but she’s undermining the law. What’s the point of educating an illegal immigrant in a system where she can’t hold a job legally or get a driver’s license?” Kent said.

The article doesn't say how much money the state already spent on educating Jessica Colotl in public schools, nor how much she would contribute to the American economy by joining the workforce and becoming a tax-paying citizen for the next 40 years.

As the larger debate about immigration reform rages across the country, thousands of promising students like Lizbeth Mateo and Jessica Colotl will put their lives on hold, praying for the passage of the law that could turn their American dream into a reality.

Ms. Mateo recently told the New York Times: “I’ve been organizing for years, and a lot of my friends have become frustrated and lost hope. We don’t have any more time to be waiting. I really believe this year we can make it happen.”


(Photo courtesy of Korean Resource Center's flickr photostream/Creative Commons)

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