Immigrant teens left adrift

By Darryl Holliday

Arianna Salgado wants to be a social worker when she graduates high school because she’s always wanted to be involved with the community.

Actually, she’s not sure if social work is the exact field she wants to go into, but at age 17, she has time to plan

her future.

Soon Salgado will graduate from Forest Park’s Proviso Math and Science Academy, but unlike her peers, her options for college are far more limited. Having been brought to this country from Mexico when she was 6, Salgado is not a U.S. citizen and is therefore barred from many of the rights and privileges most kids her age may take for granted, such as access to jobs, higher education, drivers’ licenses and many

federal benefits.

On Sept. 22, a U.S. Senate proposal called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM Act, was defeated by a vote of 56-43.

Initially proposed nearly 10 years ago, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students brought into the country by their parents before the age of 16 to attend higher education institutions or serve two years in the U.S. armed forces, in exchange for conditional

permanent residency.

“What I have tried to do with the DREAM Act is to give these young people a chance—a chance to earn their way to legal status and become part of the only country they have ever known,” said the act’s sponsor, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, on the Senate floor, according a Congressional transcript.

Other qualifications for undocumented immigrants include “good moral character,” being between the ages of 12 and 35 and having resided in the U.S. for the last five consecutive years.

Applicants would be eligible for certain types of financial aid with the exception of federal aid, such as

Pell grants.

However, the conditional residency would only last six years and would contain travel restrictions.

Violations of the guidelines, including failure to graduate from a two-year university or complete two years of military service, would result in the applicant again being subject to deportation.

Last week’s vote, however, prevented the DREAM Act from passing as an attachment to the $726 billion Defense Authorization bill, through a failure to muster 60 votes, the necessary amount to defeat a threatened

Republican filibuster.

The vote also prevented repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law from being advanced as part of the defense bill—though it had successfully passed the House of Representatives.

Republicans voted unanimously against the proposed amendments—most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who moved to disallow any amendment related to immigration from being debated on the Senate floor. Two Democrats also voted against the bill, one of whom, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, did so as a tactic to bring the bill up again at a later point this year.

Falling only four votes short of blocking a Republican filibuster, it was the first time a Defense Bill has been kept from proceeding in over 40 years.

Many Republicans, including Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, claimed the DREAM Act was not relevant to the Defense bill.

According to a statement released by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., “the Democrats’ effort to tack the DREAM Act onto the unrelated defense bill is a transparent attempt to force a controversial amnesty program onto the American people.”

However, according to Durbin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense is also in support of the DREAM Act, as is Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Committee on Armed Services, who was prepared to bring the bill to the floor.

As part of a broader strategy in comprehensive immigration reform that would affect the legal status of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., the DREAM Act has been tried in the House and Senate at various times before last week’s vote, including an attempt in 2006 as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (S. 2611).

A similar attempt and similar defeat occurred in 2007 when Durbin tried to attach it as an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill.

Salgado is not alone, as the future of nearly 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school each year has been in effect put on hold.

According to Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for the Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement agency, the U.S. federal department charged with locating, processing and deporting undocumented immigrants, “The DREAM act illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Despite the vote, a rally titled “I, too am America,” was held on Sept. 23 outside Roosevelt University, where nearly 100 undocumented students and supporters gathered to tell their stories and reaffirm a vow to continue to fight for DREAM Act legislation.

The rally called on Illinois politicians to propose the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill, a move that has never been tried in the House, but which many supporters think has a greater chance of passing both the House and Senate. President Barack Obama has also endorsed the act.

Forty U.S. politicians have co-sponsored the bill to date, including Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana.

“This is really about fixing a symptom of what’s wrong with our immigration system,” said Doug Rivlin, spokesman for Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

The congressional vote is the latest setback in a movement that, according to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, has vowed to push forward.

As for students like Salgado, the fight is not over despite disappointment.

“No one feels defeated,” she said.

Juan Baca, an undocumented 20-year-old student from Mexico, agrees.

Baca, a recent high school graduate currently prevented from attending college, wants to one day become an urban planner, or a Chicago historian. He hasn’t yet decided.

But until a way for undocumented youth in the U.S. is made into law, his options will also be cut short.

Rivlin agrees the fight will continue, confirming that Gutierrez will continue to forward the DREAM Act.

“We’ve got to conform our laws to the reality rather than hoping that reality changes because we pass laws,” Rivlin said.

Until then, the young activist alliance in Chicago will call for a vote on the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill.

A recent Rasmussen Report shows a slight majority, 52 percent of Americans are in favor of passing the DREAM Act as a way for young undocumented immigrants to fully become a part of the society in which they live.

Supporters of the act hope it’s a matter of when, and not if, politicians catch up with public opinion.