Chasing the D.R.E.A.M.

    In 2000, months before graduation at UCSD, Amy was just as anxious as any other college senior. The excitement of finally earning a diploma was overshadowed by uncertainty. Unlike her classmates who were busily preparing for professional jobs after graduation, Amy knew that she could not do the same.

    Charles Ellis/Guardian

    It was 1982 when Amy’s entire family left Taiwan for the United States on tourist visas — with no intention of ever going back. Amy, who like the other students mentioned in this article asked to only be identified by their first names, was only three at the time. She and her siblings eventually entered the California public school system, even received a bachelor’s degree, but today, she remains without legal status in the United States. According to Amy, her experience as an undocumented college student reflects the contradictions of U.S. immigration policies.

    “In this country, there’s a law that immigrants can go to public school, and if you go to public school you’re raised as American,” she said. “But if you want to be productive in American society, you’re not allowed to do so because of your status. If you want to work and make things better, why aren’t you allowed to?”

    As the debate on immigration continues to ring throughout the country, tens of thousands of undocumented students who are in the same situation that Amy was in six years ago, are closely watching Congress’ next step. They are not just keeping an eye on what happens to H.R. 4437, a House bill passed in December that would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony and build up the U.S.-Mexican border, but also the less stringent immigration bill pending in the Senate.

    That bill, set aside before the Senate broke for a recess this past spring, would create a legalization path for undocumented immigrants. Attached to it is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The D.R.E.A.M. Act was first introduced to the House in 2001 and has slowly gained more support throughout the years.

    The D.R.E.A.M. Act would apply to those who came to the United States at 15 years or younger. As long as a student can prove good moral standing and completion of high school and acceptance to college, the D.R.E.A.M. Act would provide a conditional permanent resident status to those who qualify. After a six-year period, the conditional status would be lifted upon graduation from vocational school or a two-year college, completition of at least two years toward a bachelor’s degree or higher, or two years of service in the military.

    “The D.R.E.A.M. Act does not offer amnesty, nor is it an entitlement,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a supporter of the bill, stated. “I believe we should give these talented students a chance to succeed.”

    The D.R.E.A.M. Act would also repeal a law that prohibits states from providing higher education benefits to undocumented immigrants unless the same benefits are given to U.S. citizens. For some states, the provision discouraged allowing undocumented students to pay resident tuition rates for their public universities. Meanwhile, these students do not qualify for state and federal financial aid, while most loans require a Social Security number or a co-signer who is of legal status.

    In 2002, a law called A.B. 540 went into effect in California which allowed for in-state tuition for anyone who has spent at least three years in high school within the state, graduated from high school or received a GED, or signed an affidavit stating that they’re pursuing lawful status. According to the University of California Office of the President spokesperson Ricardo Vasquez, most students who utilize A.B. 540 are U.S. citizens, but about 524 students with undocumented status have been able to qualify since the law’s inception.

    According to Director of Legal Services Anthony Valladolid, prior to A.B. 540, prospective UCSD students faced enormous economic hardships in trying to fund their education. He recalled families who were willing to work long hours or to incur heavy debt on credit cards just to allow their students to attend the university.

    “Post A.B. 540, it has definitely taken some financial burden off students,” he said. “Most students still end up working full-time, since they are still ineligible to access grants and financial aid.”

    UC Davis student R.J., who came from the Philippines in 1990 as a child and is currently undocumented, said that he feels lucky to be in California where in-state tuition is an option.

    “I’m also lucky that my parents are capable of funding my education,” he said. “It’s just really draining on me emotionally … knowing that if one day my parents just decided to stop paying for my schooling, I just wouldn’t know what to do.”

    Beyond financial worries, growing up without papers in America can also affect the college and teenage experience. Amy said that life in college was different for her in comparison to her peers since she wasn’t able to travel.

    “I felt left out and that I couldn’t have a life that college students had,” she said. “My friends would get drunk in TJ on Wednesdays; they would go backpacking through Europe in the summer.”

    Fernando, a San Jose State University student who entered the United States at age five from Mexico, described the discovery of his undocumented status during middle school as a blow to his reality.

    “There was a time when I couldn’t drive or go to dance clubs with all my friends because I had no ID,” he said. “I think for a long time, that was the hardest part of being undocumented … not being able to do what all my friends can do.”

    According to Valladolid, students who came to the United States with their families as children and who were never able to obtain documents have extremely limited legalization options as they grow up. Without the D.R.E.A.M. Act, petitioning for legal status can only be done through immediate family members or spouses and fiancés. While marriage to a U.S. citizen seems to be the most viable option for many students, few are willing to take that step.

    For Fernando, while he and his girlfriend are already planning to get married, he wants to wait until the D.R.E.A.M. Act passes.

    “I want to make it clear to her and everyone, I wouldn’t sell myself out just to obtain ‘papers,’” he said. “The marriage option wouldn’t be difficult at all.”

    For R.J., passage of the D.R.E.A.M. Act would allow students like him to pursue life beyond college. For him and others, the anguish of not knowing what to do after graduation can sometimes take its toll.

    “I can imagine all the forlorn thoughts others like myself have when we sit in lecture halls and see that others are moving on with their lives as they talk about their careers while I just sit there in the dark studying, hoping that I might even have half the opportunities that they do to succeed,” he said.

    Amy knows first-hand how difficult life after college can be without lawful documentation. Immediately after college, she worked as a tutor for a few years and moved from “one so-called career” to another, from law school to modeling. She is currently working in retail and said that she is still unsure of her future.

    “I feel like all my friends have their careers and their lives,” she said. “They’re experiencing accomplishments that I don’t even know.”

    The D.R.E.A.M. Act continues to be one of the least controversial parts of the move for immigration reform, as its passage through the Senate Judiciary Committee attests to. In California, S.B. 160, which would allow for undocumented students to be eligible for financial aid from the state, is also pending.

    Still, many are cautious with the verdict on the D.R.E.A.M. Act still pending.

    “I’ve always been very careful to look towards that future, especially when it comes to something as fickle as Congress passing a law like this,” R.J. said. “Sure I’d like to look forward to my future and the things I can do if I were legal, but I just don’t want to have my heart broken again.”

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