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A New Civil Rights Movement: Undocumented Students for Immigration Reform

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This week is the beginning of a monthly campaign advocating for the Dream Act organized by undocumented students across the country through the United We Dream Coalition, a national umbrella organization of undocumented student activist groups. According to Nancy, the media relations coordinator for Dream Team LA, the Los Angeles area undocumented student coalition, "Part of the reason for these events is to stress the urgency of the Dream Act. A lot of times people are sympathetic to undocumented students and our issues, but they really don't see the urgency and the reason why we need the Dream Act to pass this year, now, as soon as possible."

But the timing of the events has another significance according to Nancy, an undocumented student who has been actively advocating for the Dream Act for the past five years, "We really see a close connection and a parallel between our movement and the African-American movement and their experiences in the U.S. As undocumented students, were are constantly being denied certain rights in the U.S. and within our school campuses. We are fighting for our own humanity. A lot of tactics that we're using as undocumented students are borrowed frameworks that were established in the 60's with the civil rights movement." Since February is nationally recognized as "African American History Month," undocumented students hope to highlight parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960's and the current efforts for immigration reform. As in the 1960s, students are once again at the forefront of political activism.

The similarities between the civil rights movement and current immigration reform movement are numerous. Between 1954 and 1968, the movement advocated for legislation and other legal protections for the 18 million African Americans living in the United States who continued to be victims of discriminatory laws, segregation and various forms of violence. Currently, immigration reform activists are pushing for legislation that would impact an estimated 16 million individuals living in the United States. This includes 12 million undocumented persons and 4 million children of undocumented parents. Although these children are citizens, they live with the uncertainty of being separated from their parents due to being forced to accompany their deported parents to another country they have never known and where they may not even speak the language. Undocumented immigrants also continue to be victims of hate crimes, as highlighted by various high profile cases of beatings and murders of undocumented persons.

College-going undocumented students face a variety of obstacles. Ineligible for most types of financial aid, they worry about their options once they complete their college degree. Since 2001, undocumented students have been proactive in advocating for the Dream Act, a narrowly-tailored federal bill that would provide a path to legalization for students who have been in the U.S. before age 16, graduate from a U.S. high school and enroll in college or enlist in the military. This continues to be the central priority of the United We Dream coalition. According to Nancy, "The most important goal of our week of action is to reach middle America, to listen to our stories and the work that we have been doing. The majority of people who are against the Dream Act are so because they haven't met any of these DREAM students, they haven't heard our stories. We're calling on the United States to reflect on how we're treating our young people and how we're treating our undocumented population within the U.S."

For the past four years, I have been studying the educational experiences of college-going undocumented students. One of my main research findings is the high levels of community service, volunteer work and various forms of civic engagement. From a national survey of almost 200 undocumented students and over 100 in-depth interviews, I found that over 90% had participated in volunteer work, community service and various forms of activism. As students get older and advance in college, their level of activism increases, mostly due to their concern as graduation nears and their future remains unclear without the passage of the Dream Act. Almost a decade has passed since the bill was first introduced in 2001 and the sense of urgency continues to rise. Undocumented students are now taking greater risks by going public with their status in an effort to gain public support. As Nancy states, "We're willing to take the risk of putting ourselves out there and putting ourselves in danger, because for us it's more of a risk to remain silent and not to speak about our realities and the everyday obstacles that we go through. Right now we are not afraid to speak up and to come out, because that's what we need to do in order to be heard, in order to create change."

According to Tolu, the director of communications for the national United We Dream coalition, despite misconceptions about the support for undocumented students, the Dream Act enjoys broad support, "What we've found among the staunch anti-immigrant folks is that the Dream Act is the unifier. The Dream Act is something that different people can relate to regardless of how they feel about our current immigration situation because it speaks to our core values as people and to our sense of fairness. It tugs at your heart when you hear of a child that has been here since he was six months old but is in deportation. Nothing about that seems right and so reaching into those communities that have not been as immigrant friendly, we've been able to get support from people that you wouldn't ordinarily expect to be on the side of undocumented immigrants."

Passage of the Dream Act would allow undocumented young adults to apply for jobs that are commensurate with their education as opposed to the minimum wage jobs currently held by most undocumented college graduates. Their economic output, and the amount we can tax, would double. We would all get a higher economic return from our investment in their education, which current immigration law prevents. Research also suggests that young adults who are highly civically engaged, like the activist undocumented youth advocating for the Dream Act, continue to do so throughout their adult lives. For example, through various longitudinal studies, researchers have found that young adults who were involved in activism during the civil rights movement of the 1960s were more likely to be in leadership positions at all levels 20 years later. Thus, we can reasonably expect that the undocumented students from the United We Dream Coalition, as well as the thousands of activist undocumented students across the country, will benefit American society in another way if the Dream Act is passed: they will apply their leadership skills to become leaders in city councils, school boards, state legislatures, non-profit and businesses.

A new civil rights movement is certainly underway. Forty-years ago, landmark civil rights legislation not only improved the lives of 18 million African Americans -- it also made the country better as a whole. Pragmatic immigration reform will not only benefit 16 million undocumented individuals and their U.S. born children, but everyone in this country. More importantly, as Tolu so eloquently states, the Dream Act, "It's not a Democratic issue, it's not a Republican issue, it's a human issue, it's a civil rights issue for the students that are trying to go to school. It's about finding a just and humane way for people who are in an untenable situation. It's amazing what the students have been able to achieve even with this obstacle, imagine what they can do without that drawback. These are very passionate, involved, devoted, active, intelligent individuals and it would be a great loss to the country to give up on them. I believe that we're better as a people having DREAMers amongst us and we would be a better country if we passed the Dream Act. It would affect the lives of hundreds of thousands, and we've put everything on the line to get this done. I believe that we'll get it done."