10/12/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting for the American DREAM

Crossposted from New Era News.

We all heard the DREAM Act was stopped in the Senate earlier this fall. Some said, "Damn the Republicans," others were pleased to crack down on illegal immigrants, but how many really know what this bill means for hundreds of thousands of youth living in the United States today? I would venture to guess few. That is why I did some research and found a group, Voices of Immigrant Children for Education & Equality (VOICE) from Boulder, Colorado that not only understands the bill and immigration policy, but many of the members live within the realities of the predicament they are trying to solve in the first place.

I was fortunate enough to talk with someone involved with VOICE, Karen [last name withheld], who has been living in the United States since she was seven years old. Her family is from Mexico and El Salvador. Her mother illegally crossed into the U.S. when she was only a baby. Karen followed with her uncle and grandmother to California six years later. As soon as it was possible she was reunited with her family in Longmont, Colorado.

"I remember my first night in Colorado very clearly. It was snowing," Karen said. "I had never seen snow before and it was incredible. I had only met my mother once before, and I didn't know my step father or siblings."

Soon after her arrival in Colorado, she was put into the third grade at a local elementary school. She knew basic conversational English but was part of the ESL program to catch up with her classmates. She graduated from elementary and had finished most of middle school before moving to a smaller, more conservative town in Colorado. There, she completed middle and high school with exceptional marks in all of her classes.

"My academic councilors were trying to help me find colleges to go to, but I couldn't accept their help, I just couldn't tell them about my situation," she said, speaking of the difficulty of making her situation known.

Her situation being that she was still undocumented. She had spent her entire education in the public education system, but could not continue because her immigration process was still pending.

"I did really well in high school and none of my friends or teachers understood why I wasn't trying to go to college. All I want is to continue my education, but there are no options for me."

She did have one opportunity after graduation. Karen was and is a very active member of her church and hopes to lead missions and go to A Christian missionary university. Her youth pastor said he knew some people at a private Christian school in Denver where he thought there might be hope for Karen to continue her studies.

"I went with him to the school and met the administration. We all had such wonderful conversations, I thought they really liked me," she remembers.

"I felt like I was finally going to be able to go to school again."

Her pastor called her a week after their visit and gave her the heartbreaking news that the school felt they couldn't risk getting in trouble by the government by letting her study with them.

"I couldn't believe it -- if a privately funded Christian school that I had personally met with wouldn't accept me, who would?"

Karen graduated high school in 2007 and has since been working as a private house cleaner to save up money. Things were going well for a while, but because of the recession she has lost quite a few clients, including two last month.

This is where her involvement with VOICE comes in. VOICE was created by three undocumented young women who were activists for tuition equity in the spring of 2009. The group has acquired both documented and undocumented persons, most of which are young people. Many in the group were brought here as young children and have had a green card pending for years. VOICE continues to fight for both tuition equity (hopefully to pass in 2011) at the state level as well as the DREAM Act at the federal level.

The DREAM act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act) is legislation that has enjoyed bipartisan support, that will allow qualified undocumented youth 6-year eligibility for a conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.

This could help approximately 65,000 youth in the United States every year (around 800,000 all together) who have not received the opportunity that over three million students each year get without question.

They are smeared with an inherited title, [as] an illegal immigrant. These youth have lived in the United States for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized for what they are -- Americans.

-- DREAM Act website.

The qualifications to be eligible for the DREAM Act seem quite fair and selective:

  • Students must have entered the U.S. before the age of 16.
  • They must have been living in the U.S. for at least five years consecutively prior to the enactment of the bill.
  • It's necessary to have graduated from a U.S. high school, or to have obtained a GED, or have been accepted into a higher education institution.
  • The student must be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application.
  • They must show good moral character (i.e. doesn't have a police record or history of violence and misconduct).

As said on the DREAM Act portal website:

It would give an opportunity to undocumented immigrant students who have been living in the U.S. since they were young, a chance to contribute back to the country that has given so much to them and a chance to utilize their hard earned education and talents.

Karen and VOICE had much hope for the DREAM Act's passage earlier this year, but because of a Republican stop in the Senate, their dreams have not yet been realized.

"Another member from the group who has a kid had so much faith she would be able to support her family more after the bill was passed," referencing the economic hardship many in her network face. "She called me when we found out it was stopped in the Senate. All of us were so disappointed."

VOICE will continue to fight for what they know to be right. The group holds forums where they show the documentary Papers, a soul-reaching film made by and about five students from South Korea, Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico. They bravely came out to America as undocumented youth to shed light on the predicament they and so many others face everyday. VOICE gives the opportunity for people to ask questions and really learn about the current laws on immigration and myths that have caused many to misunderstand the situation. The group, needless to say, also provides a safe atmosphere for other undocumented persons in Colorado to come and talk or connect with others going through the same problems.

"We are not giving up on the DREAM Act, our next step is to work towards making it a stand alone bill, it will be hard but we feel it is worth a shot."

After talking with Karen and hearing the stories of her and her friends, the DREAM Act isn't just words on paper any longer. Thousands of youth who were brought here, not by their own will, have been a part of America and the education system we all have enjoyed.

They have grown up as Americans, and with the DREAM Act, they would have the opportunity to continue to learn and contribute to the country they connect with as much as any citizen. They have faced a blow with the recent hold on the DREAM Act, but they know what struggle means, and I have faith that their efforts to achieve the American dream will one day become real.

Karen expressed to me that if there is no change within the next two years, she will leave the United States and fulfill her vision of leading missions to help those less fortunate than her somewhere else.

"We are all special cases, and all we want is to be able to work and live like others. We are sick of waiting and want the lives we know we deserve."