Undocumented students rallying for legislation discover a
Dec. 1, 2003 07:10 AM
Her parents rarely talk about how they sold everything and
slipped across the U.S. border one cold October years ago, and Yesenia Sanchez
remembers little of the journey that started with a long bus ride from central
Mexico when she was 8.
Growing up in Chicago, she embraced American life - making friends, joining
after-school clubs, watching sitcoms on TV. But when she turned 16 and couldn't
get a driver's license, the meaning of her undocumented status began to sink in.
Now 20, attending a community college and hoping to earn a degree in
international studies, Sanchez worries she won't find a job when she graduates
because she doesn't have a Social Security number.
Like other young people across the country, she's pinned her hopes on the
Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also called the DREAM
Act. The proposal is before Congress, and would give undocumented youth an
opportunity to become legal U.S. residents.
Sanchez is one of thousands of young people who have come out of the shadows to
lobby for the bill - exposing themselves to the risk of deportation in the
process. "I would just like people to understand what we're going through," she
said. "We're not coming here to take advantage of this country ... We love it
and all we want to do is make it better."
Critics of the proposal call it "an illegal alien amnesty."
"An amnesty rewards illegal immigrants and sends the message to future illegal
immigrants that they can sneak in, keep their heads down long enough and
eventually get green cards," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the
Center for Immigration Studies.
The DREAM Act would allow students to apply for legal residency if they entered
the United States before they were 16, have lived here for at least five years
and have graduated from high school or are enrolled in college.
The bill seems unlikely to pass this year but might go further next year.
Introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the measure now has 41 co-sponsors from
both parties and Hatch is optimistic it will be passed by the Senate. Its fate
is less certain in the House of Representatives.
For the young people working on the bill, it's been difficult to put themselves
in the public eye with the fear of deportation lurking in the back of their
minds. But speaking out gives many a chance to finally talk about their status
with others in the same situation.
"We're not invisible anymore. If they call us illegal students, we're giving
ourselves a face and a story behind our lives," Sanchez said.
Diana, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 3,
said talking about being undocumented has helped.
"It releases a weight from you. You know, just being able to let it out," said
the 20-year-old Berkeley, Calif., resident who declined to give her last name.
"No one has ever known, other than my closest family members - not even my best
Advocates say legislators also may be more likely to be swayed by the words of
young adults who were just small children when their parents brought them to the
Claudia Gomez Arteaga, an activist at the National Network for Immigrant and
Refugee Rights, has watched as once-shy youth have blossomed into leaders during
"To see someone else in their situation take leadership and really want to fight
harder to get out of this situation, to a lot of the students that's an
inspiration, and I think that's contagious," Gomez said.
At a recent meeting to train other students to become activists, Consuelo, a
slender, intense girl of 18, stood on a stage before about 20 other students and
explained the DREAM Act.
"We need action from you guys," she urged. "To make a difference, call, send
letters. We need to do that. Five minutes of your time is nothing to make a
difference in your lives and the lives of future immigrant people."
Detractors, however, say the proposal would attract more undocumented
"Talk about setting off a mad dash at America's borders," said Dan Stein,
executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Yes, we
want these kids to get an education and, sure, we'd like to see them go to
college, but they need to go to college in their own country where they're
Many of the young lobbyists came to the United States from Mexico, Haiti, Korea
and Central America, along with other regions. Some were undocumented, while
others had visas that have since expired.
Like Sanchez, some began to realize the consequences of being undocumented when
they turned 16 and couldn't get driver's licenses. Alfredo Gonzalez, who came to
the United States from Colombia when he was 3, remembers friends asking why he
didn't get one.
"I have to make some excuse, 'Oh, I don't have a car so I'm not going to
bother,' " said Gonzalez, who grew up playing Little League in suburban New
Jersey. "It's still kind of an embarrassment for me to tell people I'm kind of
Sanchez said she's discovered other essentials are off limits, too: a bank
account, a credit card, getting a job. Diana felt left out when her friends
turned 18 and eagerly headed for the polls.
And once, a college counselor told Consuelo and other students, "'If you don't
have a Social Security number, you are worth nothing. You are nothing here in
this country.' I felt like crying."
The students see an uncertain future for themselves if the DREAM Act doesn't
pass. Gonzalez wants to go to Montclair State University so he can become a high
school English teacher. As an undocumented immigrant, he'd pay out-of-state
tuition, more than 1½ times the amount New Jersey residents pay.
A provision of the DREAM Act would allow states to decide if undocumented
students can pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, a change
that could make Montclair more affordable.
Stein, who opposes the legislation, contends the bill would let undocumented
immigrants take the place of U.S. citizens in college classrooms.
Many applicants won't get into universities, he said, "because we're going to
admit folks who have no right to be in this country in the first place."
Gonzalez has worked as a cashier at a grocery store, but is limited mostly to
jobs in the underground economy, which often lack insurance or recourse if he
isn't paid, he said.
He's frustrated, yet can't imagine returning to Colombia, either. He's even
starting to forget Spanish, he said.
Yangkyu Yoo can relate to his feelings. He's even earned an undergraduate
degree, but the New York City resident - who graduated from Stony Brook
University last June in computer science - still has had trouble finding work.
Because he's undocumented, the 24-year-old may seek a job at a small company
with low pay.
Still, he, Sanchez and many others consider the United States their home.
"Just like other students, we've lived here all our lives," Sanchez said. "I
have nothing to move back to. My whole family's here. This is where I grew up.
I've become part of America."