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State Level Dreams: Why the New York Dream Act Must Pass

Posted: 03/29/2012 7:42 am

The enthusiasm is infectious as we sit planning a 150 mile walk from New York City to Albany this spring. Most of us aren't runners or athletes, but we are prepared to make the journey because we cannot sit idly by while Washington toys with the lives of over two million undocumented youth raised in this country.

The walk aims at pushing for passage of the New York Dream Act, legislation created in the wake of yet another year's failure to pass national immigration reform. Recently, Mississippi's House voted to copy parts of Arizona's punitive immigration legislation, in the footsteps of Georgia's Senate's decision to ban undocumented youth from state colleges and universities. In contrast, New York is proposing to extend access to financial aid to all eligible New York youth regardless of immigration status.

The Supreme Court will decide the permissibility of state immigration legislation this spring. In the meantime, bills passed in states such as Arizona, Alabama, and now Mississippi highlight that laws often serve as the very vehicle through which discrimination is legitimized. Indeed, history suggests that constitutionality and human rights are not always aligned. It's been fifty-eight years since the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted racial segregation. How long will it take before we realize the profound injustice of putting undocumented youth on a separate track from their peers, prevented from pursuing their dreams in a country that uses their labor and taxes but denies their legitimacy?

The result is that undocumented youth have to be super citizens (without citizenship) as they attempt to live up to their potential. Coming from low-income households and denied access to loans, financial aid, and nearly all scholarships, these youth go to great lengths to fund higher education. Some take semesters or years off to save up, or take classes one at a time. Others become valedictorians in hopes of winning one of the few available scholarships. Some work 40-, 50-, or 70-hour weeks in low-wage jobs on top of full course loads. Still others collect bottles and cans for deposits or sell t-shirts or bracelets on fundraising pages, simply to get a college degree.

After college, denied the right to work legally in the country, a few undocumented youth collect multiple, hard-fought graduate degrees. Others find routes to self-employment to exercise professional skills. Most, however, endure long hours in low-wage, low-skill jobs, while waiting for laws to open the path to full self-sufficiency. At the same time, tired of waiting, undocumented youth are building their own systems of support, fundraising for scholarships, defending each other against deportation, mentoring younger undocumented students, and organizing to open greater avenues to educational attainment.

In short, they're pulling up on those all-American bootstraps as hard as they can pull, all while denied the right to call themselves Americans. To this group of ever-more talented and determined young adults, the country responds with criminalization, stigmatization, and orders of deportation.

The proposed state-level Dream Acts, such as New York's, will not solve all these problems. But by affirming their support for the educational aspirations of all of the state's youth, states like New York can help lead the national conversation on immigration to a more humane place, one in which passage of the 10-year-pending federal DREAM Act becomes possible.

Legislators could learn from the relentless bravery of undocumented youth activists. While the slogan "undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic" depicts the spirit of these youth who have been fearless in the decade-long struggle to pass the federal DREAM Act, it does not quite capture the very real risk of deportation that students take when they go public with their status.

As one of the planners for the "Walk to Albany" explained, "My heart is into it and I am willing to walk, but my parents are afraid for me." Why go public if the risk is so high? For many undocumented students it is through resisting the barriers that constrain one's life that one finally feels alive. The DREAM Act movement extends beyond passing the DREAM Act - it is about resisting laws that dehumanize people and legitimize fears of an "other." It is a movement that affirms that justice, compassion, and empathy should indeed be the basis for policy.

New York has the chance to promote these values, by joining Texas, New Mexico, and California in extending state financial aid to undocumented youth, leading the way for other states to follow suit. Together states can pressure the federal government to provide the real relief that's needed for the two million undocumented students in the country. It is time to free the American Dream from the exclusivity of opportunities based on accident of birthplace. Let us all have the courage to become Dreamers.