New York Dreamers Begin Hunger Strike As State Budget Deadline Looms

03/25/2015 05:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2015
Roque Planas/HuffPost

NEW YORK -- A group of 10 undocumented youths launched a hunger strike Wednesday, vowing to pressure New York lawmakers to put funding for a proposed state version of the Dream Act back into next year's budget.

Immigrant rights advocates and Hispanic politicians in New York have for years pressed for a state Dream Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for state financial aid for college. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) dashed their hopes Tuesday, when he said funding for the state Dream Act would be dropped from his budget proposal after he failed to cobble together a compromise tying the Dream Act to an education tax credit backed by Republicans.

Cuomo called it “pointless” to include the Dream Act in the budget if the proposed compromise wasn’t likely to secure enough support among either Democrats, who largely oppose the tax credit, or Republicans, who largely oppose the Dream Act.

But dozens of immigrant rights activists made clear they hold Cuomo responsible for the failure at a rally in downtown Manhattan to announce the hunger strike.

“We want politicians to take our lives seriously,” Denise Vivar, 20, an undocumented political science student at Lehman College, told The Huffington Post.

For Monica Sibri, 22, joining the hunger strike was personal. Without legal immigration status, and the access to state and federal student aid that comes with it, Sibri worked side jobs as a babysitter and in a pharmacy and pooled family money with her sister in order to pay for college. Having won only a single scholarship, she said that if the New York Dream Act fails to pass, she and her sister won’t have enough money for both to attend college in the fall.

“At this point, it’s either she goes to school or I go to school,” Sibri told HuffPost.

A few steps from the rally, a handful of counter-protesters trumpeted their opposition to the state Dream Act.

“I think it’s outrageous for people who aren’t even in the country legally to demand subsidized college loans and displace from those college slots people who have a right to be in the country,” Jim MacDonald, a 65-year-old resident of Flushing, Queens, told HuffPost.

Undocumented immigrants are generally ineligible for federal financial aid, even if they have temporary permission to reside in the country under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program launched in June 2012. Several states, including New York, have allowed undocumented immigrants to attend public schools at in-state tuition prices, but only four have passed legislation allowing them to apply for state financial aid, according to The New York Times.

Some lawmakers continue to press for the state Assembly to work out an agreement before the April 1 budget deadline.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Washington Heights) noted that the public already spends more than $200,000 to educate a student from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Who’s making the decision not to give the extra few thousand dollars to make these people into the architects, engineers and doctors that New York deserves?” Rodriguez asked. "They will be ready to pay more taxes, they will join the middle class, and they won’t depend on social services because we invested in them.”

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem), who has made immigration issues a hallmark of her tenure as the council leader, also urged state lawmakers to approve the funding.

“The Empire State has everything to gain with the passage of the New York Dream Act,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement, “so I strongly encourage both the Senate, Assembly and Governor to show leadership this session and carry this legislation to the finish line.”

To get the legislation passed, the Dream Act would have to overcome opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate, where majority leader Dean Skelos (R-Long Island) hopes to sink the measure.

“Like most New Yorkers, he doesn’t believe taxpayers should cover the cost of free college tuition for illegal immigrants while hardworking, middle-class families here legally take out student loans that will take them years to repay,” Scott Reif, a spokesman for Skelos, told The New York Times.

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