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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 19, 2006 • VOL. 44, NO. 12 • Oakland, CA

Teens rally for passage of DREAM Act

More than 1,000 people from across Contra Costa County rallied in Brentwood last month in support of the DREAM Act, a proposed piece of federal legislation that would grant undocumented high school graduates who enroll in college or university a temporary resident status for six years.

These students would be granted permanent residency status once they have earned a degree from an institution of higher education, or studied for at least two years towards a bachelor’s degree or higher, or served at least two years in the U.S. armed forces.

The temporary resident status is necessary, say legislation advocates, to allow the students to qualify for in-state tuition costs and to receive financial aid that is currently forbidden for undocumented students.

In order to obtain the temporary resident status, a student has to have arrived in the United States at least five years ago and been younger than 16. He or she has to have remained in school and stayed out of trouble with the law.

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2003 as a stand-alone piece of legislation. That year, the House bill (HR 1684), the Student Adjustment Act, addressed the same issue. Both remained in a holding pattern until last November when a bipartisan group of senators reintroduced the DREAM Act of 2005 as S. 2075.

The DREAM Act would have been on track to become law in 2006 had it passed both houses of Congress and been signed by the president.

Instead, on May 25, the U.S. Senate approved the DREAM Act as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform of 2006 —S. 2611—, effectively tossing it into a politicized and contentious immigration debate.

The House, for its part, approved immigration reform in December that does not address legalization of undocumented immigrants but rather focuses on border security and workplace compliance of immigration law.

A conference committee will be named to reconcile both versions. A date for the new debate is yet to be set.

DREAM Act advocates say that its approval will benefit 65,000 people in the United States.

“The way things are now many students are discouraged to go to college or to even finish high school. They think that once they graduate, they won’t be able to work without a Social Security number or a Green Card,” said Teresa Flores, youth organizer for the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community (CCISCO), the ecumenical organization in charge of the march and vigil in Brentwood.

“What we are defending here is the hard work of children who are not responsible for what their parents have done,” said Steve Pehanich, executive director of Catholic Charities of California. “Many kids don’t even know about their immigration status until they have to face problems at college.”

The National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for immigrants’ rights, says that, if approved, this U.S. Senate initiative would have a positive, life-changing impact on the students who qualify, dramatically increasing their average future earnings.

Adversaries such as the Federation for the American Immigration Reform (FAIR), however, claim that the bill is an amnesty disguised as an educational proposal. The organization argues that the initiative puts American citizens in direct competition with undocumented residents for increasingly scarce financial aid resources.

“This giveaway is being offered at the same time that all state universities are raising their tuition and are cutting back on educational benefits,” said Dan Stein, the FAIR director, on the organization’s web page.

FAIR also believes that it is unfair to provide undocumented students with the benefit of paying in-state tuition —which is a state subsidy— when college students who are U.S. citizens from other states have to pay the full out-of- state fee.

California is one of just nine states that currently charges in-state tuition to undocumented students who have been here for more than three years and have graduated from a local high school.
However, this benefit, which translates into savings of at least $24,000 a year, is often insufficient without access to government-backed financial aid.

A California version of the DREAM Act (SB 160) was approved by the State Senate and is scheduled to be discussed by the Assembly Higher Education Committee on June 20.

The proposal grants eligibility for financial aid to undocumented students who attend any of the public universities or community colleges in California.

Without federal changes, however, undocumented students would have no automatic right to work in the country after their graduation.
Francisco Estrada, director of public policy with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), is positive that the mostly Democrat California legislature will approve the bill. It is unknown, he said, whether Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to sign it.

UC Davis student Gretel Quintero is one of the nearly 3,500 undocumented students in California who would benefit. Quintero, who graduated in 2004 as the second best of her class in Stockton, is about to lose her spot at UC Davis because she doesn’t have legal residency and needs financial aid to help pay the in-state tuition cost of $5,400 for three classes.

“I haven’t been able to buy my books, and I can’t even think about the money that I have to pay to keep in college,” she said.


Wearing his graduation cap and gown, Oscar Gonzales of Liberty High School in Brentwood speaks about the educational opportunities that the DREAM Act could provide for undocumented high school graduates. Listening is Patricia Calderon.

Greg Tarczynski photo

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