|Erika Andiola, undocumented youth activist. Photo credit: Steve Pavey|
Moderator’s Note: This is the fourth of a series of blogs prepared by students in my University of Washington class on Comparative Social Movements: Mexico and the United States which convened during the Winter 2013 quarter. Continuing the series, I bring you a blog entry on activism surrounding the DREAM Act. The students – Sonia de los Rios and Michelle Nam – examine the state of undocumented youth in the United States and their increasingly visible role as activists for a just and fair immigration law. They conclude with this observation: “Coming out of the closet provides the opportunity to not only accept one’s true identity but also to gain acceptance and support from one’s family, friends and community”.
Activism and the Dream Act
UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS ASSERT CONSTITUTIUONAL RIGHTS
Sonia De Los Rios and Michelle Nam | Seattle, WA | May 8, 2013
There are approximately 1.8 million undocumented youth in the United States. While 65,000 graduate from high school every year only 7.5 percent will go on to college to further their education. The main reason for this pattern is that undocumented students cannot get a job to pay for schooling and in many cases cannot even apply to gain admission to colleges or universities because of their legal status or inability to apply for federal financial aid. This issue has brought forth many activists to develop or participate in immigrant justice movements such as the “Undocubus”, Freedom University, and many more in a widening push for a federal DREAM Act, a legislative proposal that would give out-of-status students the opportunity to further their education without fear of deportation and perhaps gain a path to citizenship.
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was first proposed in 2001; since then several different versions of have been proposed. The DREAM Act is a bill to legalize children of undocumented or out-of-status immigrants. Typically, these are children brought to the United States as minors and often even as infants. The law does not allow minor children to independently obtain permanent status; this can only be done through their parents. The 2011 version of the DREAM Act established a strict set of requirements for undocumented youth to qualify for the regularization [sic] of their status:[i]
· Must be between the ages of 12 and 30 at the time the Law is enacted.
· Must have arrived in the United States before the age of 16.
· Must have resided continuously in the United States for at least 5 consecutive years since the date of their arrival.
· Must have graduated from a U.S. high school, or obtained a General Education Diploma (GED).
· Must have “good moral character” (no criminal convictions)
Since the DREAM Act was first proposed, twelve states have proposed their own versions including Texas, New York, California, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Connecticut, and Maryland. Most of these state level laws are attempts to allow undocumented youth to pursue post-secondary education, allowing them access to educational benefits such as paying in-state tuition, state aid, and fee waivers.
Students are often the biggest active proponents of the DREAM Act. For example, in October 2012, in Maryland, over 1,000 undocumented immigrant students gathered to march for in support of the state version of the DREAM Act. In California students met regularly to help form and lead a campaign for the DREAM Act, writing letters and making speeches at public demonstrations they finally persuaded Governor Jerry Brown to sign AB 131, a companion bill to AB 130. Together, these acts are known as the ‘California DREAM Act’. Under this legislation, starting in January 2013, undocumented students in California may apply for and receive state financial aid for college. The mobilization of the immigrant students required a lot of time but also a great deal of courage to face serious personal risk (of arrest and deportation) as these young students fought for a chance to go to college and advance their education.
|Courtesy of Presente.org|
The personal is political
Preet is an alumnus of the University of Washington and was recently accepted into Seattle University Law School. She is an undocumented immigrant, a strong supporter of the DREAM Act, and is currently a beneficiary of the Obama Administration’s deferred action policy (see the blog of January 9, 2012). She has lived in the Seattle, WA area since childhood when her parents came from India. After she became a legal age, Preet has had to go to the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement offices every month to check-in. Preet was also taken from her family because she was not legal and put into foster homes after her mother was apprehended and placed in a detention center.
Preet wants to become an advocate for people like herself and her parents by becoming an immigration lawyer. Like the majority of persons polled, she believes that the children of undocumented immigrants had no choice but to come to the United States with their parents. After receiving a Bachelors degree, she worked for two years to get into a law program. Her story is inspirational: Despite the difficulties and injustices faced by her family, Preet has graduated from college at one of the most prestigious public university in the nation and has now taken the first step to fulfilling her dream of becoming a lawyer at yet again another great school.
The nation is filled with young persons like Preet. We have recently learned of cases involving undocumented youth who persevered and completed college and law school only to be barred from practicing law due to their undocumented status. The case of Sergio Garcia in California received a lot of media attention last year but his is only one example among many.
There are also issues related to the rights of U.S.-born citizen children of undocumented immigrants. The 14th Amendment: Section. 1. States:“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [ii]
Recently, the anti-immigrant hysteria has also started to focus on the 14thAmendment. The stereotyped allegations over so-called “anchor babies” has led to many heated debates in Congress with Republicans leading the push for a reconsideration of the Constitutional principle that grants citizenship to “All people born or naturalized in the United States.”
Many of the Republicans pushing for this change believe that at the time this amendment was written it was intended to protect basic natural rights. In their view the 14thAmendment was ratified after the Civil War in 1868, and the intent of Congress at the time, according to most Republicans, was a “modest” desire to enforce laws as natural rights for freed slaves and their families. Now critics are arguing that it has now become an immigration issue. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is among those who believes granting automatic citizenship to children of undocumented residents is a mistake: “To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to an emergency room, have a child and that child is automatically an American citizen. That shouldn’t be the case – that attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.”[iii] From a societal standpoint many Republicans fear that undocumented immigrants are using up American basic services.
Defenders of the 14thAmendment believe that going against birthright citizenship would mean going against our country’s Constitutional traditions. To say that people born here are not necessarily citizens would go against the most basic principles our country stands for. Proponents of birthright citizenship argue that the 14thAmendment is a bedrock foundation our national concepts of liberty, due process, and equality. There is also the question of the rights of the unborn, the children who are brought here at a very young age or are born here who do not choose to be born in the United States. Therefore, it would seem unethical to take those rights away. It also seems ironic that Republicans are so quick to preach about the rights of the unborn when it comes to abortion law but quickly forget those rights when it comes to citizenship rights. As for the fear of the cost impact of the undocumented immigrants on social, health, and education services: All reputable non-partisan sources suggest that the undocumented are a net benefit for the country’s economy: They are taxpayers, consumers, and small business owners. In all these capacities they contribute to the economy in a positive manner. One credible study found that the households of undocumented immigrants are less likely than households of legal immigrants or citizens to use public services.[iv]
The DREAM Act and what it means to be an American
This brings us back to the main issue we are covering in this article: The DREAM Act and what it really means to be an “American.” Many Republicans have opposed the DREAM Act because they fear it will lure more immigrants and exacerbate the conflicts and problems they see associated with immigration. But this is a political statement and has little to do with the reality of direct lived experiences by those who continue to suffer under the dysfunctional system in place. The young undocumented students who have lived, studied, and worked in the United States for most of their lives; who have adopted the language and culture of their new home; who have appreciated the freedoms that this country has to offer; these youth have a lot more at stake in the just resolution of the immigration conflict than the elected officials who are playing politics with legal reform. We dare say these youth are more faithful to American principles than the dishonest politicians who care mostly about their chances at reelection and care little for making government work for the people. “These youth have lived in the United States for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized for what they are, Americans.”[v]
So what exactly are these youth willing to do in order to receive this 9 digit number representing “normalized” legal status? Grecia Lima, a student at UC San Diego, is a leader on campus in efforts to support federal passage of the DREAM Act. With many young leaders around the country, she is collaborating to articulate the voices of the undocumented community in order to bring about positive social change. We present a video clip produced by Grecia and other UCSD students focused on DREAM Act activism.
Grecia states that the “undocumented immigrant community is the most needed community, an invisible community and a community that lives in fear. A community that lives in silence.”[i]She refers to the teachings of Cesar Chavez, the renowned farm worker organizer and civil rights activist, who has had a lasting impact on the labor and immigrant rights movements. “Once social change is started, it can never go back, you cannot uneducate it. You cannot uneducated the people who have been educated…Once social change starts, you can not change it back.”
Across the country, many undocumented youth are gathering together to share their stories; they are ending the silence and invisibility. These are stories about ‘new’ Americans, the people who have lived for too long in the shadows but nonetheless grew up learning the same Constitution, the same language, and the same culture. Yet, they are denied basic rights U.S. citizens take for granted every day.
Activists such as the youth associated with the “Undocubus” movement carry undocumented immigrants across the country to protest deportations. As their logo claims: “No Papers. No Fear.”[ii]These students, mothers, and fathers are all risking the separation of their families and the risk of being arrested or deported back to their country in order to create social change. They sing and march peacefully, challenging the abusive racial profiling practices of police and sheriff departments in states with intense anti-immigrant crackdowns such as Arizona.
Freedom University[iii]is another example of this activism. Founded in Georgia, in 2011, Freedom University serves undocumented immigrant students who were denied access to higher education to five of the state’s most competitive schools: University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia, and Georgia College and State University. State law there also requires that undocumented youth can be admitted to any other college if they pay out-of- state tuition rates – which means they are being denied access since few can afford to pay these rates.
Five college professors started the Freedom University program by teaching a seminar course once a week. All of the professors teach at the University of Georgia-Athens (UGA): Dana Bultman, Lorgia Garcia-Peña, Betina Kaplan, Bethany Moreton, and Pamela Voekel. The class is not a substitute for a full-fledged college education and may not apply as transferable credit, if or when students get accepted at a different school, but it is an important way to provide undocumented students with exposure to the college experience and to continue to highlight the important political aspects of the issue.[iv]Freedom University is an all donor- and volunteer-driven organization. The University’s website provides information on the numerous ways for persons to help contribute to this movement.
So what do the riders of the Undocubus and students of the Freedom University gain by revealing their illegal status and putting themselves “out there?” In a recent article in the New York Times, the authors discuss what might be the reasoning behind participating in the Undocubus-styled form of protests: “Coming out is about raising consciousness about what it’s like to live in the shadows, to conceal one’s identity. Coming out of the closet provides the opportunity to not only accept one’s true identity but also to gain acceptance and support from one’s family, friends and community”.[v]Basically, it is an essential step towards creating social, cultural and legal change.
These protests are about the power to have a voice. The undocumented youth are standing up for their rights and asserting the fact that they understand the importance of activism as a pathway to citizenship. They no doubt value the privileges of citizenship more than the millions who apathetically live out their years as passive citizens, completely disengaged from the political life of the nation. It seems ironic that it is the non-citizens who understand the Constitution and truly cherish the promise of the Bill of Rights. These student activists have risked their lives, separation from their families, and arrest. Yet they persist in their protest activism, all in the name of justice and higher education. These students are not to be taken lightly and the promise of the DREAM Act has encouraged youth from all over the country to unite in cities big or small in peaceful protest to create social, cultural, and legal change.
[i] Growing Activism- Undocumented Students-DREAM Act.” YouTube. YouTube, 07 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.
[ii] UndocuBus – No Papers, No Fear. No Papers No Fear. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.
[iii] Freedom University – HOME. Freedom University. Freedom University, 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
[iv] Finnegan, Leah. “Freedom University: Georgia Profs Offer Course To Undocumented Immigrants.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
[v] Room for Debate – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013
[i] Act, Dream. “Dream Act 2013.” Dream Act 2013. Dream Act of 2009, 2009. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.
[ii] U.S. Constitutional Amendments.” Findlaw. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.
[iii] Kahn, Carrie. “Republicans Push To Revise 14th Amendment.” NPR. NPR, 05 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.
[iv] Chomsky, Aviva. They Take Our Jobs and 20 Other Myths about Immigration. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007, p. 20.
[v] Welcome to the DREAM Act Portal.” Welcome to the DREAM Act Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.