12/02/2010 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Born Abroad and Raised Here, Immigrant Students Pin Futures on DREAM Act

It was the end of the school day, and Alex Alvarado was hunching over his Spanish test. Although he grew up speaking Spanish at home, he never learned formal grammar. Besides, he needs language classes for college, and college is definitely in his plans.

Exactly how he'll get there, though, and what he'll do afterward, is in question.

Like many at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, Colorado, Alvarado has spent nearly all his life in this country, but he wasn't born here. Now a 17-year-old senior, Alvarado faces an uncertain future. He's undocumented in the only country he knows and a stranger in the country of his birth.

"I can't see myself in Mexico at all," he said. "I'm from there. I wouldn't be ashamed of going there. But it's not my home. I don't know anybody there. I might have family there, but I don't know them."

Alvarado has become an activist for the DREAM Act, a measure designed to give people like him a path to citizenship. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plan to bring the legislation to a vote this year in Congress' lame duck session. President Barack Obama supports it. But it's failed before and Republicans are sharpening their opposition.

Although the bill, officially called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, was first introduced in 2001 as a bipartisan measure by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dick Durban (D-Ill.), conservatives are lining up against it. A Republican white paper by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) calls it amnesty and says it "would give college preference to illegals over citizens." (See it on Politico here.)

The DREAM Act would give people ages 12 to 35 who came to this country illegally a path to citizenship if they go to college or enlist in the military. The law would apply to those who had entered the country before the age of 16, have lived here at least five years and graduated from high school, obtained a GED or have been accepted into college.

DREAM Act supporters say some 65,000 undocumented high school students graduate each year nationwide. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates more than 2.1 million young people could be eligible to apply for legal status under the act, but because of its requirements for education or military service, only 38 percent would likely receive it.

Rocky Mountain states, where hotels, restaurants, construction sites and farms rely on illegal labor, have some of the highest numbers of potential beneficiaries. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are among the top 10 states, where 75 percent of the potential beneficiaries live.

Immigration in the Rockies outpaces the nation as a whole, and the region has some of the highest rates of illegal immigration in the country. In Nevada and New Mexico, nearly half the immigrant population is believed to be undocumented.

Foes see the DREAM Act as amnesty. "Clearly the message being sent by the Dream Act will be that if any young person can enter the country illegally, within five years they will be placed on a path to citizenship," Sessions wrote.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has seized on the same fears. "Packing amnesty in pretty paper doesn't mean it isn't still an amnesty," wrote Jena McNeill, homeland security policy analyst for the foundation.

Alvarado said he worries Republicans who might otherwise support the bill will oppose it simply to cheat Democrats out of a victory. "Putting our lives at risk just to make it some competition, it's pretty unjust," he said.

With his boyish grin, Alvarado looks like an all-American kid. He's student body co-president and a four-time homecoming king. His blue-and-gold letter jacket is a reminder that he plays on the varsity soccer team. In his wide, flat-brimmed ball cap, hoodie and baggy pants, he mixes with schoolmates both Anglo and Latino. His friends have always been a mix of English and Spanish speakers, he said.

Alvarado is all-but-American, though, and his story is hardly typical. He was less than 2 years old when his parents brought him and his brother from Delicias, Mexico. His father landed in the cherry orchards of Delta County, Colorado, before finding construction work in Aspen in the booming Nineties. They came to nearby Carbondale homeless, sleeping in a blue Ford Taurus by the downtown park. His brother, three years older, dimly remembers Mexico. Alvarado's first memories are of bathing in the irrigation ditch that runs past the park.

When a woman spotted them living out of their car, she brought them to her tiny apartment, where they slept under the dining room table until she moved out and they moved in. Now, his father is in charge of maintenance at the same apartment complex. His mother cleans houses. They live in a trailer at the edge of town.

It's a modest version of the American Dream. His brother attends a Christian college thanks to a sponsor. Alvarado wants a history degree and a teaching certificate so he can teach at his alma mater.

"I see myself as any other kid," Alvarado said. "Just because of the way I was brought here and the way I'm living here, being an illegal immigrant holds me back from doing so much."

About half the Roaring Fork School District's students are Latino, children of laborers doing the dirty work of the resort economy in and around Aspen. While the school district doesn't track how many are undocumented, school officials assume many are.

"These are kids who have been in our school districts and in our communities for years and years," said school board member Debbie Bruell, a DREAM Act supporter.

"We've been telling them for years and years to work hard and they can succeed and I want them to be able to do that," said Bruell, who said she was speaking for herself and not for the board.

Recently, Alvarado joined some 100 DREAM Act supporters in a rally in nearby Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Most were high school students, some who would be affected by the act, some who wouldn't. Some were teachers and parents. It felt more like a pep rally than a political one. Instead of protest songs, students blasted dance music.

Alvarado took the stage, sharing his story and urging participants to call legislators. In speaking out, he's taking a big risk, essentially confessing he came here illegally. But Alvarado isn't shying away.

"What I realized is, in the past, the people who actually changed something had to risk something," he said.

David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Follow him at