DREAM ACT May Help Foreign-Born Students Become Legal Citizens

DREAM Act May Help Foreign-Born Students Become Legal Citizens

By Hoa Quach
The San Diego News Network, March 26, 2009

San Diego — Eduardo Ochoa crossed the border from Mexico as an infant in 1974 and spent his childhood in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.

He became a legal resident in 1987 and a citizen in 1996. He recently received his Ph.D. in education from Claremont Graduate University and currently teaches ninth grade at Lincoln High School in San Diego. Like hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant minors across the country, a number of his students are in the same position he was as a child. But proposed federal legislation designed partly to make it easier for them to obtain citizenship would change that.

The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would offer young, undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status.

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Richard Lugar are expected to re-introduce the DREAM Act, which was first introduced to the senate in 2000. Durbin represents Illinois, which has a state version of the proposed federal legislation.

Back in San Diego, Ochoa and his students are hoping for the passing. According to Ochoa, many of his undocumented students have an 'inferiority complex,' Ochoa said. But they are willing to risk deportation by speaking out in favor of the legislation.

'Theyre just human beings. They just want an opportunity,' Ochoa said.

Under the bill, undocumented immigrant children would obtain citizenship by meeting certain criteria: They must have come to the U.S. before they turned 16, are below the age of 30, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, graduated from high school or passed an equivalency exam, have 'good moral character' and either attend college or enlist in the military for two years.

An estimated 360,000 undocumented high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 24 and 715,000 undocumented youth between 5 and 17 would be eligible for 'conditional legal status,' according to the Migration Policy Institute. MPI also estimated that 50,000 undocumented youth are higher-education students.

Under U.S. law, all residents are guaranteed a free education from kindergarten to 12th grade, documented or not. In California, undocumented students can qualify for in-state tuition at higher-education institutions because of the passing of California Assembly Bill 540. However, only legal residents are offered financial assistance by federal and state governments.

For Mario, an undocumented immigrant who did not want his last name revealed, a lack of funds is what held him back from finishing his schooling at San Diego City College. Obtaining legal status through the DREAM Act would qualify him for public higher education student loans and financial aid.

'I had to pay $200 per unit, plus books and all the other unforeseen expenses one incurs when pursuing your education. I was thrilled nonetheless. I was able to defer my tuition payment for a few months but was never able to put the money together to pay it off,' Mario said.

Mario finished up the semester with eight units and a debt of $1,300, which he said he had not yet paid back.

The 27-year-old immigrant came to the U.S. about 14 years ago with his parents. He claims that a U.S. Border Patrol officer offered to obtain 'green cards' for the family for $1,500 per person. The 'green cards' never arrived but Marios family was able to make a home in the U.S. He currently works an 'under-the-table' job.

'The DREAM Act is everything to me at this point,' Mario said. 'I have no stake in anything else.'

Passage of the DREAM Act would over-populate the U.S. and deepen unemployment rates, said Yeh Ling-Ling, executive director of Alliance for a Sustainable USA, an organization created to stop rapid population growth in the U.S.

'Instead of passing the DREAM Act, Congress should immediately adopt some sort of immigration moratorium so that we have a chance to effectively address skyrocketing unemployment and other problems concerning legal residents,' Ling-Ling said.

Ling-Ling, who said that she sees immigration issues as more of 'population issues,' stated that the DREAM Act would simply open the border for more illegal immigrants, causing the U.S. to be impoverished and overpopulated.

'Americans concerned about racial harmony, our national unity and the future of the U.S. should be aware that the so-called comprehensive immigration reform promoted by open border advocates and favored by President Obama will actually lead to an explosion of legal and illegal immigration,' she said.

'Also, if we amnesty 12 million people, over the next 20 years, we could add 120 million people to the U.S. who will be mostly potential job-seekers, consumers of water and energy, and users of very costly social services.'

The DREAM Act wouldnt negatively affect the U.S. economy since the undocumented students would be better educated, said San Diego State University political science professor Kristen Hill Maher.

'I do not think its opponents are correct in thinking that it will deepen our economic troubles, at least if you look at the big picture, because the kinds of students who are enabled to receive higher education would be much more productive members of society if we passed the law,' Maher said. 'Even in a downturn, our economy continues to need a highly educated workforce, and those with more education also, as a rule, contribute more to the tax base.'

Ochoa believes austere immigration laws wont prevent people from entering the U.S. as citizens of underprivileged countries will continue to cross the border for an 'opportunity.'

But he does offer a potential solution to stopping mass immigration: economic sanctions on other countries.

'If you really want to stop mass immigration, you would put economic sanctions on countries who allow their people to be exploited,' Ochoa said.

The Act was first introduced to Congress in 2000, it has since gone through numerous revisions but has yet to pass despite bipartisan support. President Obama expressed his support for the bill while still a candidate for the White House. National DREAM Activist Organization has organized a campaign, asking supporters to call their Congress representatives today.