The Thing Is, I’m Undocumented
This is Oumou Troure. She’s an all-American girl who grew up in Boston and loves the Celtics, playing the saxophone, and window-shopping on Newbury Street. She’s also one of the 65,000 kids in the U.S. who graduate high school each year but aren’t legal residents. So even though she’s been accepted to college, she can’t get a loan to pay for it. She can’t get a job to support herself, either. When she tells me this, I step closer, ignoring my parents’ constant warnings to never talk about what I’m about to say — you can never tell who’s listening. “I know what you’re going through,” I whisper.
Oumou Troure photo by Rania Matar
The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. Though it’s come close to becoming law, it never quite has. Two years ago the House passed the bill, but it fell five votes short of moving forward in the Senate. Massachusetts’ senators split on it, with John Kerry voting yes and Scott Brown no.
Over the years, variations on the act have also been put forward, most of them containing similar conditions for people who were brought to the country as children to be given legal status — graduation from high school, good moral character, and so on. Where they differ is in precisely who would be eligible and what the benefits would be. Some proposals call for a path to citizenship, while others don’t. Depending on how the eligibility is ultimately defined, the DREAM Act could benefit as many as 2.1 million undocumented children and young adults who were brought to the country before the age of 16.
The 2012 American National Election Study found that 44 percent of the country is in favor of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents, while just 25 percent say they oppose such a measure. Another 31 percent say they’re not sure. Still, this being an election year, there seems to be little momentum for any kind of sweeping reform of the country’s fractured approach to immigration.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” says the DREAM Act is a “political gimmick” masquerading as comprehensive immigration reform. “The point of it was to be able to say, ‘Here’s little Luis. He’s valedictorian of his high school. Lived here since he was two months old, knows no language but English, and his goal in life is to join the Marine Corps and kill American enemies.’ Therefore, all 12 million illegal aliens need some amnesty.” Krikorian says the DREAM Act is just too ambitious, but could pass if it were rewritten with significant changes, such as limiting eligibility to children brought to the U.S. before the age of seven. The problem with the act, he says, is “It was all or nothing for these guys, and now they have nothing.”
Krikorian is certainly right about one thing: Neither the DREAM Act nor any other serious proposal out there provides anything that looks like comprehensive immigration reform. And lacking any kind of federal leadership on the issue, the states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws of their own — many of them affecting young people who would be helped by the DREAM Act. While 14 states, including Rhode Island, allow eligible undocumented students attending public institutions to pay in-state tuition, Massachusetts does not. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, says the tuition issue in Massachusetts has been controlled by “those who are opposed to undocumented immigrants specifically and often immigrants more generally.”
Up in New Hampshire, the state Senate voted last month to compel students attending public colleges to swear in an affidavit that they are legal residents of the United States. And for their part, South Carolina and Alabama have passed laws prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public postsecondary education.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, deported a record 400,000 people last year, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) insists that it’s not going after young people who would be made legal under the DREAM Act. But a growing chorus of law professors is arguing that President Obama should not wait for Congress to pass the law. More than 90 of them signed a letter to Obama in May that insisted he has “clear executive authority for several forms of administrative relief for DREAM Act beneficiaries.” Harvard Law School professor Deborah Anker, who signed the letter, says Obama could help undocumented young people right now. “The president definitely has the power,” she says. The question is, Will he use it? (As it turns out, he will. The Obama administration announced June 15 that it will no longer deport young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and have stayed out of trouble. These kids may also be eligible for work permits.)