Undocumented and Unafraid

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DREAM Act rally at UT-Austin

 

Anyone passing by the nondescript UT–Austin classroom Tuesday night would have been impressed by the political discussion going on inside about cloture and other more arcane congressional procedures.  But then, this group of 18 students pays closer attention to what happens in Congress than most because they are undocumented. And their futures depend on whether Congress will approve legislation in the coming weeks granting them a pathway to citizenship. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a tentative day of November 29 for a vote on the DREAM Act. The students were meeting to strategize on how to lobby legislators to support the bill.

For those unfamiliar with the DREAM Act, it provides a path to citizenship for students pursuing higher education or serving in the military. There are a number of provisions, however, that must be met before a student qualifies under the bill. (To learn more about it read here). The DREAM Act, which was first introduced 10 years ago by a bipartisan group of legislators, has lost nearly all of its Republican support as the debate over immigration has become increasingly polarized. Under the current Democratic majority, the Dream Act could pass in the House. The challenge is the Senate. In the next few days, the UT students will lobby legislators such as Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison who has signaled – albeit half heartedly  – that she might consider voting for the bill.

Last week, some of the UT-Austin students, and other students across the country spoke publicly for the first time in rallies about their undocumented status and their aspirations for the future. The campaign called “Undocumented and Unafraid” was a bold and risky move to appeal to the majority of Americans not aware of their plight, or who are against the DREAM Act.

The legislation is not an “amnesty” as many immigration hardliners characterize it, but a dose of reality. Approximately, 65,000 undocumented high school students graduate every year. These students were brought to the United States by their parents when they were children.  They’ve spent the majority of their lives here, and they’re not going back. If you think the United States can deport an estimated 11 million people then you’re not facing reality. Isn’t it better that they have advanced degrees, pay their taxes and contribute to the society as whole without having to hide in the shadows and work low wage jobs?

As I sat in that UT classroom surrounded by high achieving DREAM Act students, who are becoming doctors and engineers it seemed un-American that they’d never be allowed to practice their professions. I know. I know. I can already envision the complaints I’ll receive from immigration hardliners. Whenever I write about the need for comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act I frequently receive comments like this recent one:

“I don’t dislike the people themselves – I dislike how they are using
up resources that MY tax money goes towards. I dislike how an illegal
working in this country works, doesn’t pay taxes, uses government
resources, and sends quite a bit of their income BACK to their home
country, screwing us all around.”

Sigh. Where to start?  Undocumented people do pay taxes. They pay sales tax, and some pay property taxes. Some also use false social security numbers so they can work. This is not a good thing. I repeat NOT A GOOD THING (that’s for the hardliners who for some reason like to write IN ALL CAPS.) But there’s a large pot of social security money – an estimated $120 to $240 billion — sitting in the Social Security Trust Fund that will never be claimed by these workers. Guess what? It will go to U.S. citizens.

True, many of these students have student loans. Isn’t it easier to pay back those loans if you are a doctor or a nurse, instead of an undocumented housekeeper? How will these loans be paid back if the student is deported? Undocumented students can’t qualify for financial aid from the federal government.

Many immigrants do send money home to help their relatives but they also own businesses in the United States that provide jobs and contribute in other meaningful ways to U.S. society.

At the end of the Tuesday evening meeting, the leader of the DREAM Act student group, a 21-year old student in engineering,  asked whether some of the students would volunteer to speak at a local high school where many undocumented teenagers attend classes. The school’s counselor had told him that many of these high school kids were considering dropping out of school. Some of the university students in the room nodded. They’d felt the same way too. What was the use in bettering yourself, if it seemed like the whole world was against you?

One of the DREAM Act students spoke up “They’re struggling thinking right now ‘what’s the use of continuing?’ she told the others. “At this point, they don’t even think college is possible. We’re the role models who can show them it can be done.” Hands went up around the room. There were more than enough volunteers.

Will the U.S. Senate step up and do what’s right by supporting these students? Right now DREAM Act students are on hunger strike in San Antonio to draw attention to the plight of undocumented students. They are appealing to Senator Hutchison to vote for the bill. You can be against illegal immigration, but you still have to face the fact that thousands of undocumented students are here right now attending schools across the country. Fix immigration. Secure the borders. But also acknowledge what’s happening within our borders. We can have generations of uneducated, undocumented immigrants living in the United States, or we can have highly educated citizens contributing to our society. It’s Congress’ choice.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.