When Erika Andiola was 11 years old, she left Mexico with her mother to join her two brothers in the United States. Fleeing domestic violence in Mexico, they made the U.S. southwest their new home despite their lack of legal documentation. It took Andiola two years to learn English but by high school, she was succeeding academically. “I had the grades to go to college,” says Andiola. “I decided to apply to all the universities and scholarships that I could.”
Defying the advice of her high school guidance counselor against applying to college, Andiola applied and was admitted to Arizona State University and graduated in 2009 with honors. However, due to her legal status, she is unable to work. “I have a degree and I have experience but it has been a year and a half and I’m still unemployed,” says Andiola.
On December 18 the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act failed to get the “super majority” of 60 votes required for closure in the U.S. Senate, receiving only a simple majority of 55 votes to close debate on the measure and bring it to a vote. The DREAM Act would have provided more than two million undocumented youth, such as Andiola, a legal pathway to obtain U.S. citizenship upon meeting eligibility requirements. The requirements included arrival in the United States under the age of 16, residence in the country during the five years prior to the bill’s passage, being under the age of 30, possession of a high school or G.E.D. diploma, and acceptance to college.
Those meeting the criteria and demonstrating “good moral character” could apply for conditional nonimmigrant status for six years, during which DREAMers (a term used to refer to those who would fall under the DREAM ACT) must either attend undergraduate college or serve in the military for two years. At that point, DREAMers would be able to file for permanent residency status and become eligible to apply for naturalization.
Given these requirements, it was estimated that the DREAM Act would enable approximately 825,000 young people to obtain their U.S. citizenship. The higher earning potential of those new citizens would add up to approximately 1.4 trillion current dollars over a 40 year period, according to a study by the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yet, some Senators remained skeptical of the bill.
“If you do this, it will mean that if you can get in [to the country] at 14, 15, or 16 then you too will be eligible four or five years from now for [legalization through] another DREAM Act,” said Republican Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions who voted against the bill. Other critics argue that the DREAM Act takes advantage of undocumented youth by providing the military as a singular means of obtaining their citizenship in the case that they are unable to gain college admissions.
“Simply put, the DREAM Act allows the United States to prey on society’s most vulnerable,” argued Joe Guzzardi in an editorial column. Chicano Studies professor Jorge Mariscal from the University of California, San Diego also wonders about the military’s intentions. “The military option [of the DREAM Act] was there at the beginning. The Pentagon helped write the DREAM Act.”
To DREAMers, however, the DREAM Act represented an opportunity.
“I want to get my Masters degree,” said Andiola. “I want to be a counselor. For me the DREAM Act was going to be an opportunity.” Juan, another DREAMer who prefers to keep his last name confidential for fear of losing his college financial aid, came to the United States around the age of 11 from Venezuela. “The DREAM Act is an option for folks who have worked so hard in this country and invested so much and believe so much in this country that they risked their lives,” said Juan. In a press statement, an anonymous DREAMer and member of National Korean American Service & Education Consortium explained her heartfelt disappointment of the bill’s failure.
“The moment I heard the final vote count, I felt a wave of sadness overcome me – a sadness that could only be so great because it was felt by millions of others. It grew into a gray, quiet emptiness.” Despite failing to win a super majority vote, introducing the DREAM Act to Senate highlighted the strength of the pro-immigrant movement and gave voice to thousands of undocumented student activists.
Leading up to the Senate vote, thousands of DREAM Act petitions were sent to Senators’ offices, over 300 organizations signed letters of support, and leaders across the political spectrum from the military, government, business and education communities came out in support of the bill. Organizations such as the Student Immigrant Movement in Boston and Alliance of Korean American Students in Action in Los Angeles, organized rallies, vigils, and sit-ins across the country.
Juan described the challenges of being both a student and an activist. As early as 2007, he spent his nights typing up letters to blogs and organizing pro-immigrant youth in an effort to create online networks for DREAMers.
“Legislatively the DREAM Act will continue to be a useful organizing tool for stopping deportations and determining where our elected officials stand,” said Kyle de Beausset, a member of the Student Immigrant Movement and a student at Harvard University. “If it were up to me, I would tell [Indiana Senator Richard] Durbin to introduce as expansive a DREAM Act as possible this next legislative session. The likelihood of it passing with a Republican House is very slim, but if Republicans want the Latino vote for the presidency in 2012, and Obama is truly going to make it the issue he promised he would make it when the DREAM Act failed, it is still a possibility.”
Since helping to introduce a version of the Dream Act to Senate in 2001, Senator Durbin has become a major proponent of the bill. He promised to continue pushing for the bill despite the December loss. The question still remains whether future iterations of the DREAM act will include additional concessions to win the support of an increasingly conservative Senate. The version of the bill introduced to the Senate already incorporated significant compromises, such as limiting the type of financial aid available to DREAMers. DREAMer Deivid Ribeiro who came to the United States at age eight from Brazil and is a student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, fears that future legislative changes will attempt to incorporate language criminalizing immigrants. Yet others see possibilities in the bill not passing in 2010.
“With a slim likelihood of it passing in the next session, there's no better time to bring back important provisions like the community service provision, and to roll back harmful compromises like the age cap,” said de Beausset. What is certain is that DREAMers appear unrelenting in their determination to continue their struggle to push for the rights of immigrant youth.
“This is my country and I’ve been here all my life pretty much. I am American,” says Ribeiro. “I still have the rest of my life and I will keep fighting.”
Paola Reyes is a NACLA Research Associate.