Dream Deferred
Washington Post
July 28, 2006

For Kathy, graduation was “the most depressing day of my life.”

When comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, so did the hopes of some high flying recent high school and college grads who want to get to work.

A group of proud graduates, who grew up in the United States but are undocumented immigrants, met with members of Congress and reporters Thursday in Washington to express their support for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

The bipartisan DREAM Act would give permanent resident status to anyone who has completed an associate degree, or at least two years of a bachelor’s degree at a college in the united states. Opponents say the legislation would send a dangerous message to people in other countries who might come to America illegally. Advocates for undocumented immigrants hope that Congress will exercise its ability to pass the DREAM Act even if debate on other immigration reform is protracted. For some students, it’s an urgent affair.

Adeola, 25, who only gave her first name, graduated in December with an industrial engineering degree from the University of Michigan. Adeola’s parents came from Nigeria to the United States on student visas when she was a year old. Like many of the students who spoke to reporters, Adeola didn’t fully understand the implications of her parents’ decision to overstay their visas until it came to applying to college. Adeola was a finalist for a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarship, but she could not show financial need, because her lack of a Social Security number kept her from applying for financial aid.

After a hurdle-filled Michigan experience, Adeola graduated and was turned away from jobs suiting her qualifications because of her undocumented status. Adeola finally took a job as a computer programmer with Wal-Mart and moved to Arkansas, only to be dismissed days later when her status came to light. After that, she aced the military entrance exam, but was ultimately barred from entering. “What else can I do?” she asked.

Jack Martin, special projects director at Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that seeks to stop illegal immigration, said that students like Adeola can probably earn good salaries and make great contributions in their home countries.

Adeola, however, said she has no family in Nigeria, and wouldn’t even know what to do when she got there, if she were to return to work. “I don’t even remember what Nigeria looks like,” she said. Three of Adeola’s four siblings were born in the United States, and thus are citizens. One of her sisters graduated from Duke University, and will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate school, and two others are at Boston College and Stanford University, respectively.

Martin said that undocumented immigrants who do not have any family in their home country are probably few and far between. He added that granting permanent resident status in exchange for having received higher education “sends the message abroad that the United States doesn’t really care whether people enter the U.S. illegally, and therefore encourages illegal immigration.”

Josh Bernstein, senior policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center, said that students like Adeola, who have valuable skills they are being prevented from using in America, abound. “If America could see this,” Bernstein said, referring to the students gathered with reporters, “and understand this is what we’re talking about with the DREAM Act, America would be more supportive.” Bernstein said that 65,000 students who would qualify for the DREAM Act will graduate high school this year.

Mario Rodas, 19, a high school honors student now taking courses at Harvard University’s Extension School, was picked up by law enforcement officials in a raid when they were looking for “someone with a criminal record,” Rodas said. Rodas, an aspiring computer science student, has a court date in December where he is facing deportation to Guatemala. “I don’t know anyone in Guatemala,” Rodas said.

Kathy, a recent social work graduate of Nyack College, in New York, said that she will soon be relegated to working as a nanny. “Graduation was the most depressing day of my life,” she said.

The story of Dan-El Padilla Peralta, one of the students present Thursday, has caught media attention before. Peralta recently graduated as the salutatorian of his Princeton University class, and received a scholarship to study classics at Oxford University, in Britain. Peralta’s parents came from the Dominican Republic when he was four, and, if he accepts the Oxford offer, which he plans to, he’ll face an uncertain future, and could be barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 years. Like the other students, Peralta has consulted with lawyers, and said he has reason to believe he’ll at least get waivers so that he can come back and visit his family periodically.

Adeola said that, for the most part, people have been really encouraging, but that one lawyer told her simply that “your mother broke the law,” she recalled. “I didn’t break the law,” Adeola said, expressing her frustration. “It was a decision made by somebody else.”

David Epstein