Undocumented Students’ Dream of Higher Education Remains Just That

Opponents have branded the DREAM Act “amnesty,” and the latest incarnation of it was tabled in the Senate Wednesday. The bill would allow people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, and who want to attend college or join the military, to move toward legal residence. Despite this latest setback, DREAM Act proponents are undeterred.

Wednesday was the first day of fall break for many Colorado college students. But instead of sleeping in, about 250 young people marched from the Auraria campus to Sen. Ken Salazar’s office, demanding the Senate move forward on legislation known as the DREAM Act.

“Without this, I don’t know what I can do,” said Jose Villegas, 22, whose parents brought him to the U.S. illegally when he was 3. “I can’t go to college, I can’t get a good job, I can’t work legally. I’m basically in legal limbo.”

Villegas has never been back to Mexico. He speaks unaccented English and considers Colorado his home. But when he graduated from high school in 2005, he realized his future in this country was tightly constrained. 

“I didn’t ask to come here. I was brought,” Villegas said. “I definitely want to pursue higher education, but without the DREAM Act, it’s impossible for me.” 

The DREAM Act would allow people who came to the U.S. illegally as children and who want to attend college or join the military to move toward legal residence. An estimated 65,000 eligible students graduate from U.S. high schools every year would qualify for DREAM Act assistance.

But about the time the student protesters were moving west on 15th Street nearing Sen. Salazar’s office – their chants intensifying and smiles widening – lawmakers in Washington voted to dash their hopes. 

The latest incarnation of the bipartisan Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act failed to pass today’s crucial Senate vote with a final tally of 52-44.

“It’s disappointing for Sen. Salazar,” said Cody Wertz, the Democrat’s spokesperson. “He believes in this bill. It’s a good bill. It’s not even close to what the detractors are calling it.”

Opponents have branded the bill “amnesty,” the same catchword that was effective in derailing the immigration reform package earlier this year. 

“The DREAM Act provides amnesty and an unfair advantage to those who break the law,” said Sen. Wayne Allard in a statement. “Granting benefits to unauthorized alien students rewards lawbreakers, undermines our immigration system and will only encourage more illegal immigration.” 

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Sen. Richard Durbin (D- Ill.) planned a press conference to promote the DREAM Act, featuring three college students whose parents brought them here illegally. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest the students and the press conference had to be postponed. 

But the actions of Colorado’s very own anti-immigrant crusader did little to quell the excitement at Wednesday’s rally. The “walk-in” was organized by student leaders from Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Metro Organizations for People who said 12,000 Colorado students would qualify for DREAM Act Assistance each year.

Nancy Lugo, 22, who came to the U.S. as a teenager from Coahuila, Mexico, wants to study at Colorado State University and become a nutritionist. But because she is considered an international student she would have to pay out-of-state tuition, making CSU out of reach.

“All these students here – we all want to be something, but we don’t have the opportunity to be successful,” Lugo said. 

Event organizer Juan Evangelista, 21, of Jovenes Unidos, said graduation is often a dead end for promising undocumented students. The DREAM Act would not only help graduates but would also help address the high drop-out rate among Latinos, he added.

“I have a lot of friends and family and people I know who are so intelligent and deserve to go to college,” Evangelista said. “But because they don’t have documentation, they drop out … They think, `What’s the point?'” 

Despite the disappointment of defeat, the student organizers of the Wednesday event said they are committed to work for the DREAM Act until it becomes reality. 

“The only thing we can do is keep pushing our legislators to reintroduce it next year,” Evangelista said. “If it doesn’t happen then, the year after that we’ll still be fighting for it.” 

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Kate Bernuth

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