The DREAM Act: Undocumented Students Speak Out

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DREAM Act immigration activists

Joseph Kim and Frank Yang are two among millions of hard-working students in the United States who are all equally deserving of receiving higher education. However, because Kim and Yang are undocumented students in the U.S., they do not qualify for state or federal grants, and are unable to afford college. The passage of the DREAM Act in the upcoming November midterm elections could change this and offer them, along with approximately one million other Asian and Pacific Islander (API) students, a chance to obtain a college degree.

By definition, an undocumented person is a non-citizen who entered the U.S. without legal documentation or who overstayed their visa. In response to the educational limitations that undocumented individuals face, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is a pending bipartisan legislation that would provide undocumented students with a path to legalization.

The DREAM Act (first introduced in 2001) would allow students to serve two years in the military or obtain a two-year college degree, to then qualify to apply for permanent residency. To be eligible, an immigrant must enter the country before the age of 16, live five consecutive years in the U.S., earn a high school diploma or equivalent, and have a record clear of criminal activity. If the legislation is enacted into law, approximately 2.5 million undocumented youth under the age of 18 who live in the U.S. would be affected.

It is a popular misconception that the affected individuals primarily consist of those who are of Latino or Hispanic descent. However, there are over 1.5 million undocumented APIs living in the U.S. Part of the reason for this lack of awareness is  the cultural stigma that surrounds the issue of undocumented individuals.

“I became very detached from my community,” said Kim, who is currently studying at a local community college. “Out here, if people speak out, it’s shunned upon. I kept my own undocumented status a secret in shame.”

Although Kim excelled in his academics, the rejection he received from his community made it difficult to find jobs, which added to his fear of deportation. To survive, Kim had to work “under the table jobs,” since many employers discriminate against his undocumented status. However, unlike Kim, Yang had a different experience with his community.

“I felt welcomed by my classmates,” said Yang, describing his experience in early education. “As a kid, I was undocumented, but I felt no pressure. I did everything normally.” As Yang approached the end of high school and decided that he wanted to go to college, he realized that his undocumented status would have a more serious, lasting effect than he had ever anticipated.

“I was not eligible for financial aid,” said Yang. He paid his way through college by earning scholarships and taking out many student loans. The 21-year-old U.C. Berkeley graduate now faces a new state of uncertainty.

“I feel like I’m in limbo. I’ve been accepted into many graduate programs,” he said. “But I’m again not eligible for financial aid.” Yang’s lack of financial resources to pay for graduate school has led Yang to search for jobs and internships in the mean time.

Kim and Yang, alongside the many other undocumented students in the U.S. are uniting as one to fight for their rights. They voice their stand for all immigrant youth as a part Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), alongside many other immigration activists.

Despite the emergence of undocumented students willing to share their stories, there is much criticism surrounding the DREAM Act and immigration reform.

Republicans believe that tough border control is necessary before legislation immigrant citizenship can be enforced. Many conservatives say that to condone such an amnesty would encourage  immigrants to break laws and find loopholes to gain U.S. citizenship. In March, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called the DREAM Act a “nightmare for the American people,” furthering that such legislation would open citizenship to the millions of family members of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries.

“It’s highly doubtful for any immigration reform to pass this year,” said Senior Law Attorney Sin Yen Ling. Ling explained how the upcoming Nov. 2 elections would cause many politicians to remain uninvolved in the legislation. Therefore, many are looking to the DREAM Act for hope.

Although the passage of the DREAM Act was a progressive step towards immigration reform, there is still a requirement of 60 votes to invoke the legislation. The bill is currently part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform package in which supporters hope will pass before the November midterm elections.

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