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Undocumented Youth named Jessica

DREAM Act may help undocumented California teens go to college

on September 27, 2010

Talking about it makes her uneasy.  She pivots back and forth in a swivel chair as her hands wrestle in her lap. “It’s not something kids talk about at my school,” said Jessica, a 15-year-old Oakland High student. “You know who is, but people don’t come out and say it.”

The “it” upon which Jessica treads lightly is residency status. Jessica is an undocumented immigrant, who moved to Oakland from Mexico with her mother and older sister when she was 2 years old.  Although she has spent most of her life in the United States, Jessica is not considered a U.S. resident because of her mother’s undocumented status. But, for Jessica, who cannot remember her early years in Mexico, the United States is the only home she has known and the place where she wants to build a future.

Jessica aspires to become a lawyer, and hopes to make a difference in her community by advocating for young people. “I’ve lived in Oakland all my life. And, I’ve seen a lot of friends get sucked into gangs and drugs,” Jessica said. “I know they could have done better if they had somebody to guide them. That’s what I want to do when I grow up. “

But while many of her peers look blithely towards their futures beyond high school, Jessica worries.  “My family is low-income and it’s not like we have enough money to pay for college,” she said. “Thinking about college is a challenge. I need to get a lot of scholarships since I’m not eligible for any financial aid or grants from the state.”

For undocumented immigrants, the cost of attending college can seem out of reach.  Under current law, illegal immigrants are not eligible for state administered student aid in the form of grants, scholarships and loans, nor are they eligible for the lower in-state tuition offered to California residents at public universities and colleges.

But all of that could change if the state passes the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. This legislation would exempt certain undocumented immigrants from paying out-of-state tuition at public universities and colleges while also providing access to scholarships derived from non-state funds. Eligibility under the act is restricted to those who have attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated with a high school diploma or received a GED. The act builds upon the 2001 California Immigration Higher Education Act, which allows certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at California colleges and universities.

The DREAM Act was approved by the state senate earlier this month, and now sits on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk awaiting an enrollment decision that he must deliver no later than September 30. But enrollment is not certain in California; Schwarzenegger has already vetoed the state’s version of the act three times since 2005.

Additionally, a federal version of the DREAM Act, on which the California legislation is based, was defeated in the Senate last week. Some believe this may result in a similar decision for California’s DREAM Act.“I think the outcome on the federal DREAM Act will have a chilling effect on smaller versions of the act on the state level,” said Bob Dane, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization opposed to the DREAM Act that works to stop illegal immigration. “We have a dwindling amount of education assistance across the board. These acts are going to reach greater resistance.”

While the federal and California DREAM Acts share a name, they differ in key ways. Most notably, the federal act would provide conditional permanent residency to eligible undocumented immigrants between the ages of 12 and 35, whereas California’s version would not provide residency and makes no reference to age.

But both DREAM Acts seek to make college education more accessible to qualifying undocumented immigrants by affording them the same opportunities as U.S. residents to receive financial aid and support.

“The DREAM Act is a way to turn this around and say education is a right,” said Tania Kappner, a teacher at Oakland Tech, an executive board member for the Oakland Education Association, and a member of the youth-based organization By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which is supporting the California legislation. “The nation needs to look to California as a direction to go. If we can win some real victories, we can make that happen.”

BAMN held a public hearing last Wednesday on the UC Berkeley campus in support of both bills, at which students ranging from middle school to college age took turns sharing their reasons for supporting the DREAM Act. “It would be really hard for me to get into college without that support,” said Maria, a 16-year-old Oakland Tech student who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “I came to the United States when I was 10 months old. I consider myself more American than Mexican.”

Jazmin, a 15-year-old Media Academy student also from Mexico expressed similar sentiments. “My mom wanted me to get a better education, have more options and a better life,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to know that it’s harder for me to get to college than other students who might not try as hard.”

Young people across California and the nation can tell similar stories. The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that, as of 2008, roughly 28 percent of Oakland’s population is comprised of foreign-born individuals.  Nationally, an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrant students are said to graduate from high school each year.

BAMN is planning a rally at UC Berkeley on Monday to urge Governor Schwarzenegger to pass the California DREAM Act. “We are asking all people from all races to stand up to create a civil rights movement,” said Yvette Felarca, a national organizer for BAMN. “We need to fight for an equal and just society.”

Yet some are skeptical the California DREAM Act will pass. “A lot of cutbacks in legislation are done on the backs of immigrants,” said Arnoldo Garcia, program director at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an Oakland-based organization that works on legal issues related to immigration. “Government has been poisoned by the thinking that the solution to all our problems is to get rid of people.”

But for the thousands of undocumented young people like Jessica, Maria and Jazmin, whose lives will be changed by Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision, the DREAM Act is much more than politics. “If the DREAM Act doesn’t pass, it would, in a sense mean no more future for me,” said Jessica. “It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong. We just want to get an education and do something with our lives.”

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