DREAM Act inspires Oakland's undocumented youth

Thursday, December 16, 2010

By Joel Tena
[Reprinted by permission from the wonderful local site, OaklandSeen.]

“John” didn’t come to the US of his own choice. His parents, both undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and the Philippines, hurried from Canada one day to visit an ailing family member in the US. Without papers, it was amazing they arrived. More traumatic was that they were now stuck in the US, with no way to return home.

That was almost twenty years ago. Since then, John has led a productive life, living in Oakland since he was six years old, graduating from Oakland High School, and now attending a Peralta Community College here in the East Bay (because of concerns regarding his immigration status, John has chosen to use a pseudonym).

Yet he is still undocumented, and in this day of rising xenophobia and with the right-wing poised to take control of the House of Representatives, John has every reason to think that his place in this country, the only one that he has known since the age of two, is in jeopardy. Unless you help him, and literally millions of others like him, by joining the movement to get this lame duck session of Congress to pass the DREAM Act by Friday, December 17, 2010.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or “DREAM Act”, would allow young people who were brought to the United States by their parents as undocumented children to legalize their status in the US. Under certain conditions (were brought here younger than 16 years old, are younger than 29 years old, are of “good moral character”) these young people can begin to start the process for legal residency by committing to two years of college, vocational school, or by joining the military. This would give folks a pathway to citizenship where right now there realistically isn’t one. Even with the restrictive provisions put forth to appease more conservative members of the Democratic and Republican parties, it is possible this bill could positively impact the lives of over two million young people (out of about 12 million undocumented folks throughout the US ) who are considered criminals by the Federal Government for no other reason than they were brought here “illegally” by parents wanting nothing more but to provide a better life for them than they could in their home countries.

Without this bill, these same young people would face a life full of uncertainty and struggle, unable to legally get a job and ever suspicious of authorities like the police or even school officials. “Growing up in Oakland as an undocumented person limited what your goals, outcomes and motivations were,” said John. “You see teenagers dealing drugs, and some were prostitutes at a young age. Because there is that type of environment in our city, people might feel like they have to turn to that without other options. ”

Trail of Dreams activist Carlos Roa concurs with this assessment. In the beginning of this year Roa, along with several other undocumented DREAM activists, made a 1500 mile journey from Florida to Washington DC to raise awareness of the DREAM Act. These undocumented DREAM activists have truly taken a leadership role in this movement. According to Roa, “Many undocumented students lose hope in high school, some even drop out, because they think to themselves ‘What’s the point?’ when they face all these enormous barriers.”

Even in California, which allows undocumented students to attend college, the current situation is not ideal. “Although accessibility into colleges and/or universities in California for undocumented youth isn’t known to be as arduous as it is in other states,” said Roa, “that does not discount the fact that they’re still undocumented.” Undocumented students “still face difficult circumstances such as being unable to legally work, drive, or travel, and live in omnipresent fear of deportation and/or family separation.”

The DREAM Act would help change the status of these young people who didn’t decide to come here but would like to stay and become a part of society. This process over the course of 10 years could eventually lead to citizenship and security for themselves and their families.

The DREAM Act would be a significant victory for the immigrant community and hopefully the first step on the long road to comprehensive immigration reform in this country, an action that is urgently needed for those millions of people without papers, without status, and who live in daily fear of getting arrested by la migra and deported, even as they continue to contribute tremendously in the form of taxes and the critical work they perform to our society and country.

Even more urgent is the current climate of hate towards all immigrant communities, but especially towards undocumented immigrants. Some members of the Republican and Democratic parties who eight years ago were willing to consider this program now refuse to as the zeitgeist in many areas of the country has shifted to the right. Former Presidential Candidate John McCain is one of the most visible of these politicians, first supporting the DREAM Act, then in recent years jumping on the anti-immigrant band wagon with his opposition to it and support for draconian anti-immigrant laws like SB1070. Consequently Senator McCain is currently being targeted by DREAM Act supporters and immigrant rights activists with a hunger strike that was joined last week by labor and feminist leader and icon Dolores Huerta, who told McCain in an open letter “(t)he young DREAM Act students with whom I am fasting believe that you can once again stand tall with independence and conviction… by voting YES for the DREAM Act.… ¡Sí Se Puede!”

Many other members of the Republican Party hold outright disdain for this program which they consider amnesty for “illegal criminals”. “(T)he DREAM Act is a nightmare for the American people,” said Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas during House debate. With the next House of Reps firmly in the hands of right-wing Republican leadership, and 2012 being a presidential campaign year, there is slim likelihood of Congress taking up this issue again in the next few years.

Then there are those on the far left who do not feel that this bill is worthy of being adopted by Congress. While most immigrant rights activists and advocates are disgruntled with some of the compromises that have been made in an attempt to make it tenable for enough Senators to pass it, there are those from anti-militarism, peace activist circles who disagree with the military service portion of the program so much that they would rather the entire bill fail than be adopted with those provisions.

While their goals are noble in theory, at this political moment their cause is completely unrealistic. A somewhat amenable Congress has one week left to vote on this bill as is. Thereafter, regardless of the details of the bill, there is no way a right-wing, xenophobic House will adopt it in any form.

Not to mention the fact, as much as it pains me to say, that there are many folks in our communities for whom military service is a viable alternative that can help fund their further education. Beginning with my own father, family members, and friends, this is a choice many are willing to make.

A choice. The core of the DREAM Act. These are young people who were not given a choice to come to the US, but they are here. Rather than keep them underground, with few rights or opportunities to pursue their own happiness we must work to ensure what the right wing in this country refuses to let them have: a choice; to make the right decision for themselves and their families.

“I have always believed that undocumented immigrants need to lead the way in this fight, said Favianna Rodriguez, noted political artist/activist and organizer with Presente.org. “Right now, they are asking us to support them in DREAM. Let’s not betray them in the name of anti-militarism. Let’s work to get DREAM passed and then focus on keeping our youth in school, and out of the military. It’s also the right of the youth to choose their own path. Some of them want to serve this country and that is their right, just as it is the right of LGBT soldiers to serve. I say let young migrants speak for themselves.”

With our collective voices we can demand that undocumented young people are heard and bring about a change that will forever impact the lives of literally millions of people. This will shift the tenor and tone of the immigration debate in this country as we head into the darkness of a long winter with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Do your part to advance the lives and well being of these young people. Contact your Senators now and tell them to support the DREAM Act. As Gaby Pacheco, another member of Trail of Dreams, affirmed this past Thursday on the steps of the United States Capital, “We’ve come out of the shadows, we’re no longer afraid of telling our stories, and telling Congress to give us an opportunity to live our lives. The same way that you cannot cover the sun with one finger, you will never be able to cover us.” Call 866-587-6101, a hotline where you will be directed to targeted US Senators from throughout the US who have not publicly made a decision, to let them know why you support the DREAM act and why they should too.

Let the sun shine. Call the US Senate today. Pass the DREAM Act now.

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