Most Americans agree the DREAM Act is a good idea yet the bill continues to languish in the U.S. Senate. For many of us, the DREAM Act is just another issue — in the news today, gone tomorrow. For young people affected by this legislation, it has the potential to shape the rest of their lives.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with a handful of students who would benefit from the DREAM Act. It is difficult to do justice to their passion, their knowledge and the civil way in which they told me their stories. Here is a little bit of what they had to say.
"I get that our parents broke the law. I get that," exclaimed one young woman. She was responding to my questions about some people’s point of view that the United States must never forgive illegal immigration. "But what are we supposed to do," she asked referring to herself and others brought to this country when they were very young.
“It seems like there’s a huge lack of empathy, not even sympathy,” a young man remarked. “I don’t know if people have taken time to think about this.”
As a starting point, the young people with whom I spoke would like people to at least consider their point of view and not rush to judgment.
“We’re not like [the stereotypes],” asserted a young woman. “We’re not all criminals. I’ve worked two jobs since I was 15 to save for college because I won’t be able to get loans.”
“We can’t get Medicaid,” asserted a young man. “That’s impossible without a Social Security number. We pay taxes but we’re not eligible for benefits.” Even if the DREAM Act passes, these students would not be eligible for many, perhaps most, government services.
“We’ve contributed all our lives,” added another student. “We volunteer. We collect food for the food drive and clothes for the clothes drive [at school]. We always try to help.
Several of the students who told me their stories earn top grades. Some have resumes that would make any parent proud. They have no blemishes on their “record” never getting crossways with authorities in school or with the police. They are hard working kids whose futures are cloudy because they have no way to get a Social Security number.
“I don’t think people know what they are saying when they ask that,” responded a young man when I asked the students why they don’t return to their home country and then return through a legal process. “I don’t have anywhere to go back to.”
Even if they had memories of a home country, these students don’t see that as a realistic option. They cite the enormous expense required to pay various fees. “That process is for the ‘elites’ who have plenty of money,” said a young man. “You’ve got to understand. [Our parents] were escaping desperate situations. They are trying to make things better for us.” Another student asked, “What would you do for your kids?”
All of the young people with whom I spoke were brought to this country before the age of ten.
Most in this group were brought here before the age of five. The United States is the only home they’ve known.
“I want to be an American,” declared one student. “This is the only place I know.” The group discussed assertions that the DREAM Act is a form of amnesty. The students disagree. “Amnesty means no requirements,” said the same student. “We have to earn our [legal] status.” Those who qualify for the DREAM Act will receive conditional legal status that requires either two years military service or college, among other requirements.
The students with whom I spoke are willing to meet the requirements in the DREAM Act. They don’t protest that these requirements are too severe. The one thing they struggle to understand is that they are a target of hate.
“People need to know that racism is still out there.” The students talk about being called names, accused of being criminals and being branded inferior. It’s hard to dispute their claims. Look at my last column. Slurs are imbedded in people’s comment “handles.”
Much of the vitriol students experience is from a distance – for instance, media reinforced stereotypes. But, these young people feel ostracized at school, too. “[Our legal status] is definitely a social hazard,” conceded one young man.
Any parent of a teenager knows that what young people want most is to fit in – it’s painful for teenagers who don’t. The inability to fit in is a tension these student face every day. “I didn’t even know my status until I was thirteen,” said one young man. “It got hard when my friends in football could do things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t get a drivers license when they did.” Teenagers notice these differences and start to ask questions.
A young woman explained, “Sometimes you feel ashamed because you can’t do what your friends are doing. They ask, ‘Why aren’t you going for that scholarship?’ It’s hard to know what to say.” She concluded in a quiet voice, “Some friends keep their distance when they learn [of my legal status].”
“I want to tell people my story,” said a young man. “But, you never know how people will react. I’m disappointed when friends don’t stand by me. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.”
At a particularly passionate point in the conversation, referring again to the slurs and negative stereotypes he and his peers must endure, a young man asserted, “We feel no malice. Our tone is not evil. So it hurts to see so much hatred directed toward us.”
He concluded quietly but forcefully, “Is it really so offensive that we want [opportunities] others are born into? What is so wrong with that that it leads to much hatred?”
These types of hardships can be endured if there is hope for the future. These students sometimes struggle to maintain that hope. “I sometimes wonder if all the hard work I’m doing is worth the effort,” said one student. The students said this is a common feeling among the students living without legal status. Few things crush the spirit more than having to settle for a life that is less than one’s potential. That’s what these students face.
But, the students I met express resilience. “There are moments,” conceded one student, “but I have to be optimistic. This is our future. We have to help people understand.”
“People have been telling us our whole life that things aren’t possible. But, we’ve always had to prove people wrong,” said one young man adding that he’ll keep working.
The young people with whom I spoke understand that there is a need for comprehensive immigration reform. “The immigration system is badly broken,” agreed one student. But, while students wait for comprehensive reform, the clock on their future is ticking. Another young woman remarked, “My cousin is 28 years-old. If this doesn’t pass now, she won’t be eligible anymore (a person must be younger than 30 to qualify for legal status).”
The conversation ended with the students asking me what I think about the DREAM Act. My answer is simple: I favor the DREAM Act because, as a conservative friend and fellow elected official often says to me, “It’s the right thing to do.” The United States will not benefit by punishing children for the “sins” of their parents. Indeed, our country’s greatness is built upon providing people with opportunities.
The young people who told me their stories understand how precious opportunity is. They watch their peers who were born in the United States take for granted what it means to be an American. “They don’t know what they’ve got,” said one student. I’m confident the students I met would make the most of even small opportunities – they already have.
Even if a moral argument in favor of the DREAM Act is not persuasive, looking at things from a practical perspective also suggests it is the right thing to do. I defy anyone to provide an example from U.S. History when it was productive to suppress the spirit and human potential of a young man or woman. Potential is something to nurture, not ignore.
But, I think the moral argument holds. As my consistently conservative hometown newspaper editorialized just a few days ago, a failing DREAM Act is a failure of responsibility to our youth.