August 2, 2011

Holding on to a Dream

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Adriana Mireles Robles, 18, holds her nephew, Noel Ramirez, inside her home in Oklahoma City, Okla., on June 24, 2011. Robles, 18, came here with her family from Mexico when she was 2 years old. Her family has applied for permanent residency but it has been pending for 16 years.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Adriana Mireles Robles, 18, holds her nephew, Noel Ramirez, inside her home in Oklahoma City, Okla., on June 24, 2011. Robles, 18, came here with her family from Mexico when she was 2 years old. Her family has applied for permanent residency but it has been pending for 16 years.

Editor’s Note: The names and images of undocumented immigrants interviewed for this series are being withheld at their request out of fear they will be arrested and deported.

The DREAM Act is a symbol of hope for thousands of immigrant youth in America as a pathway to legal residency and eventual citizenship.

For others, it represents a first step to open borders and amnesty.

The 10-year-old federal legislative proposal has taken various shapes. But it has kept the key provisions of giving undocumented immigrant youth an application process to residency if they graduate high school and attend college or join the military.

In the past few years, the most vocal and growing supporters have been teenagers and college students, calling themselves “Dreamers.”

“I’m a fourth generation Mexican American and my friends who are undocumented depend on me to be their voice,” said Kasey Hugheart, president of DREAM Act Oklahoma and student at the University of Tulsa.

“Oklahoma is ultra, ultra conservative with our lawmakers regarding this issue. We know they are probably going to keep saying no to us. But we want to put faces on this issue for them and let them know we aren’t going anywhere.”

In Oklahoma, about 272 undocumented students are attending Oklahoma’s public universities or colleges, according to the Oklahoma State Higher Regents data. That number represents less than one percent of the total enrollment.

DREAM Act Oklahoma became an official affiliate of the United We Dream national advocacy network last year. The Oklahoma group has members from TU, Oklahoma State University, Rogers State University and Tulsa Community College.

Hugheart said the group spends most of its time lobbying lawmakers for passage of the act and educating the public about the proposal’s details.

“This is far from an amnesty,” Hugheart said. “A student has to be here for five years before the law’s passage, graduate high school and have six years of conditional status to get a degree or be in military service. And they have no access to financial aide for this.

“From the time they would apply to citizenship would be 11 years. To put your life on hold and go through this is a big achievement. We should want these kinds of students in our country. How can the anti-immigration groups argue against this?”

As part of the DREAM Act movement, young people, typically college students in metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles, are “coming out” as undocumented.

The younger generation of immigrants see this as a political statement and believe there is safety in numbers.

Most recently, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who won journalism’s highest award three years ago for his work covering the Virginia Tech shooting, wrote a piece outing himself as undocumented. Antonio was smuggled into the country at age 12 from the Philippines, an act he said was arranged by his mother.

Hugheart said this is not occurring in Oklahoma or other middle American states. She said interior states have more anti-immigrant support, leading illegal immigrants to retain a serious fear of arrest and deportation.

“It’s different in different regions of the country,” she said. “On the East and West coasts, students are declaring themselves undocumented and unafraid in public places. We’re not there yet. It’s not safe for students to do that here.”

The opposition argues the DREAM Act rewards illegal behavior.

Carol Helm, of Immigration Reform for Oklahoma Now (IRON), called the proposal “biased, unconstitutional and discriminatory.”

“It’s simply discrimination,” Helm said. “It is biased in favor of a group of people at the expense of legal citizens. This is more than a slippery slope. It’s reverse discrimination.

“We either have the rule of law or anarchy. There is no in between on that. We are very rigid on that point.”

Helm said the stories of children being brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents shouldn’t impact the decisions for deportation.

“This is bigger than humanitarianism,” Helm said. “This is a rule of law. The DREAM Act makes a mockery of immigration laws that are being broken.

“The laws have been violated by a group of people now appealing to our humanitarian sense. These people choose what laws they want to follow and that’s outrageous. Those parents who took their little babies illegally over the border took humanitarianism out of the equation.”

The DREAM Act explained

rianism out of the equation.”

THE DREAM ACT EXPLAINED

The legislative measure was first proposed in 2001 and is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Various versions have been proposed during the last decade.

The 2010 version would have given a “conditional nonimmigrant” status for at least two years. Eligibility would include the following:

  • Entered the U.S. before age 15;
  • Earned a high school diploma, received a GED or been accepted into a college;
  • Must have lived continuously in the U.S. for at least five years;
  • Cannot be older than 29;
  • Undergo several background checks to be deemed of “good moral character” by the Department of Homeland Security;
  • Undergo a medical exam.

Limits on “conditional nonimmigrants” include not sponsoring extended family members to the U.S. and not being eligible for federal benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid.

After completing two years of college or military service, the students would be eligible to apply for permanent immigrant residency.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the act in December 216-198, but it failed to have enough votes to advance it to the Senate. It was re-introduced in both chambers in May and sent to subcommittees, technically keeping the measure alive.

In June, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led the first Senate committee hearing on the DREAM Act, heard by the judiciary committee, subcommittee on immigration.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano testified in favor of the proposal as well as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who cited a Congressional Budget Office report estimating $1.4 billion in deficit reduction if the measure were approved.

It is estimated about 2 million current students would be eligible under these terms.

FROM OKLAHOMA LAWMAKERS:

Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla: “Congress should be focused on securing our borders and stemming the tide of illegal immigration — not offering benefits or citizenship to those who are in our country illegally.”

Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla: “While I understand the need for some immigration reform, I firmly believe the first priority is to secure our borders and to fully enforce the immigration laws that are currently on the books. I voted against the bill last year because I do not believe that illegal immigration should be rewarded regardless of a person’s age. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of my constituents urged me to oppose the legislation and I heeded their voices by voting against it.”

Becky Bernhardt, deputy press secretary for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.: “While Dr. Coburn is sympathetic to children who have been brought to the United States illegally and believes we should do everything in our power to help these individuals realize their dreams of higher education, the DREAM Act is not the solution to America’s immigration problem. Not only is the most recent version of the bill extremely costly at $5 billion, it does not give the American people what they have long been asking for: a policy that works towards securing our borders while enforcing current law.”