This is the second installment of a five-part series on undocumented Latinos in Boulder County.
Mia Andrea,” as she wants to be called, was 5 years old when her parents decided to cross the border into the U.S. illegally, in search of a future that would offer the youngster and her elder sister brighter possibilities.
This young woman, who is now 19 and has a track record of high scholastic achievement, volunteerism and leadership training through “Abriendo Puertas” (Opening Doors), “Journey through Our Heritage” programs and LYFE (Longmont Youth for Equality), has no concrete recollection of her first few years of life in Durango, Mexico.
Nor does she remember the border crossing that would eventually limit her educational and future professional aspirations in the land of opportunity.
She has grown up in Boulder County with what her mother, who we will call “Paola,” calls a “hunger for education” that hangs by the same pendulum that thousands of other DREAM Act youths cling to, as they await the bill’s passage.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, if passed, would provide a way for undocumented young adults to gain citizenship under several conditions, if they attend college or join the military.
“I love my culture,” says Mia Andrea, “but I don’t even remember Mexico. Other than when I was little and lived there, I’ve never been there, and I don’t want to go. I grew up here; I’m from here. I had nothing to do with my parents’ decision to move; that was their choice because, of course, they wanted a better future for us girls. I think it’s unfair that people think of us as criminals, and compare us with individuals who have killed and do bad things, as if we were the same.”
The lively young woman has received awards from her local youth center for her participation in community service. Together with other young LYFE activists, she has marched in Washington and in Longmont in peaceful protest against Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, SB 1070, and in favor of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. She has made phone calls, asked questions and lobbied members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.
Mia Andrea longs to eventually work in social services or human services, where she can help people in great need.
“I want the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform to pass this year,” she says. “I want to keep studying.
“I was offered a college scholarship for a full year that I wasn’t able to accept because of my status,” she says, tears welling in her eyes but her voice resolute. “I want a good future and, someday, I’d like to be able to offer a good environment for the family that I may have.”
She’s immensely grateful for the work she has at a restaurant and for everything else in her life. She knows she runs a big risk of being deported. But she has to work; she’s determined to pay for schooling one way or the other. In the grand scheme, she’s one of the lucky ones because her parents are also committed to helping her as long as they have work.
“The life of an immigrant is hard,” she says. “As an immigrant you have to work until you die, much of it hard work. Americans can retire. But as an immigrant, you can’t. My parents have fought so hard for everything we have. At work, I see this old man who keeps coming to the restaurant, asking for work. It makes me so sad. You can tell from the look in his eyes that he really wants it, needs it. I think about his family and what kind of circumstances he may be facing that he needs the work so much.
“I want to tell as many people as possible to please become informed of the truth and not be fooled by stereotypes of Mexicans as criminals,” she says. “I want to ask as many people as possible to walk in our shoes so they may understand the hardships, the heartbreak and the discrimination we experience so that together we can create a better life, a healthier, more just way of thinking. God made us all in his image, and just because our skin is of a different color doesn’t make us any less worthy than any other human being.”
Mia Andrea pauses for a second, her sparkling brown eyes still moist with tears, and adds, “It’s our turn now, we have to fight for equality and justice so we can do away with discrimination. I want people who have gotten discouraged to know that we can’t give up. I want to do everything I can to give hope to those who have lost it. Sometimes people think they can’t go on, or make a difference or change someone’s mind. But we can, don’t give up!” Paola sits by her daughter, listening respectfully until her daughter concludes her story, a crumpled tissue clutched in her hand. “I’m so proud of Mia Andrea,” she says, her own eyes shimmering with tears as well. “She wants to study so much, she has such aspirations for her future; she’s a young woman with a very noble heart.
“She wants a better life; she doesn’t want the same struggles of such hard work that my husband and I live daily. She sees me cleaning houses for people day in and out, coming home so tired,” she says. “I grew up very poor back in Mexico. I’ve been working since the age of 7, helping ladies wash diapers, watch over younger kids, even make tortillas and help prepare meals at that age.
“When I grew up I married a man who was also very poor, and we wanted to give our girls a better life,” she continues. “So our families helped us pay the coyote and cross the border, our two little girls, handin-hand, praying that we could make it if it was God’s will. All we want is to be able to work and have a better life. If I had a chance to speak to people in this county, I would ask them to please think about us and people in our situation and consider supporting the DREAM Act and immigration reform so that young people like my daughter can have a real chance at a decent future.”
DREAM Act status
As the fall semester nears, a new crop of collegebound students will be preparing for their new scholastic pursuits. Except, of course, if you’re one of the thousands of undocumented youths in this country. They are hoping that the DREAM Act passes before the year is out so they have a shot at a brighter future in 2011.
The DREAM Act would give undocumented immigrants the chance to apply for legal permanent residence on a conditional basis, if they arrived in this country before the age of 16, are currently under the age of 35, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years consecutively, have earned a U.S. high school diploma or its equivalent, and have no criminal record.
The DREAM Act is not an automatic ride to permanent legal status, despite urban legend. It would take another six years before the conditional basis of their status could be lifted, assuming the person completes a minimum of two years of college or military service and remains in “good moral” standing during that period.
So just how many people are we talking about here? According to a July report by the Migration Policy Institute at the National Center on Immigration Integration Policy, approximately 825,000 youths and young adults could be the potential beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, given its “education attainment requirements.”
Policy attorney Adey Fisseha of the National Immigration Law Center says that if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brings it to the floor, after this week the Senate would have only two short windows to pass the act before the end of 2010 — right after Labor Day or just after the November election.
According to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, Democrats in Congress are ready to pass both the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. “We have put forward thoughtful bills that would introduce tough, fair and practical reforms to our broken immigration system,” says Polis. “Now is the time for Republicans to step up to the plate and join Democrats in solving this issue.”
Forbes columnist and Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia shares an interesting perspective on the bill, its intended beneficiaries, thoughts on what’s needed and its chances for passage.
“The DREAM Act is a symptomatic remedy for a condition created by America’s pathological immigration laws,” she says. “The reason these kids are undocumented in the first place is that their parents had no avenues to legally work and live in this country, thanks to U.S. immigration policies. Unlike skilled workers whose work visas allow them to live and work in the U.S. while applying for a green card, unskilled workers can’t do so. Hence they, along with their children, are forced to live in this country illegally.
“A cure would require giving unskilled workers more legal options, just like skilled workers,” Dalmia continues. “Pending that, at least their children should be given a shot at ending their undocumented existence. After all, they did not choose a life of illegality!
The DREAM Act would allow kids who have completed high school — against all odds, I might add — to do just that: attend college and avail in-state tuition rates.
“Critics object to giving undocumented minors instate tuition on grounds that this forces U.S. taxpayers to reward law-breakers,” Dalmia adds. “But extending in-state tuition is not just necessary to help these kids advance themselves and become economically productive, it is a matter of basic fairness. Even if their parents are illegal, they have paid sales and property taxes that go toward supporting public universities in the state where they live. Barring them from availing services that they have paid for is unfair and un-American.
“The DREAM Act was defeated in 2007 because of a lack of Republican support,” she says. “I think it has a better shot passing right now because of Democratic control of Congress. However, I think it will face an uphill task, given that blue-dog Democrats are facing a tough election year. They are already in trouble with their constituents because of their support of ObamaCare. Supporting immigration reforms — no matter how small and sensible — might well be tantamount to political suicide for them. Unfortunately, President Obama had the choice between passing a major health care reform bill on the one hand, and many other policy reforms, including immigration reform, on the other. He consciously chose the former and now has no political capital left to pursue anything else.”
In Colorado, Polis has been a strong supporter of the DREAM Act in addition to comprehensive immigration reform.
“The DREAM Act would fix one of the most egregious injustices within our broken immigration system by allowing children, whose only crime was following their parents, to achieve the American dream and attend college,” he says. “In the midst of a recession, we need to expand educational opportunities, not limit them, as well as retain as much talent as possible. This is the worst possible time to be deporting intelligent young kids out of the country; instead, we should be turning them into educated, taxpaying Americans.”
Laurel Herndon, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Center in Boulder, thinks that taking the kids out of the middle of an enormous problem our country hasn’t solved is imperative. “That, to me, is one of the countervailing disappointments in the United States society,” says Herndon. “That as a person we can’t stand up and say, ‘We don’t do this to kids, we don’t do this to people who were brought here as kids, so let’s just have a time-out — anybody who was brought here before [the age of] 16, here’s the line you can get in to sign up for your resident status.’ [It] should be so easy for us to do.
“I don’t know how anyone could disagree with that as being the proper course,” she says. “It would be such a brilliant public policy move to stop telling 17- and 18-year-olds when they leave high school, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t work, you can’t get a social security card, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t go to college.’” Polis and Dalmia offer two viewpoints to Boulder County residents who haven’t yet made up their minds on whether to support the act.
“As taxpayers, we have already supported these students through the public education system,” says Polis. “It makes no sense to force them to leave the country now, as they begin college and their adult lives. These promising young minds are exactly the sort of people we want to be attracting to our country. The Unites States has always been a nation of immigrants, and the DREAM Act would ensure that the best and the brightest will continue to come here.”
Dalmia offers fodder for the undecided from a different philosophical perch.
“In an age when everyone is trying to gain victimhood status, the DREAM Act youth are among the few who are genuine victims,” she says. “Their predicament is truly not their fault. They are in a legal limbo that endangers their future in the only country they know. Hence people of good will and humanity — regardless of whether they favor more open or restrictive immigration policies — should consider them a special case, kind of like those fleeing persecution and seeking shelter, and address their predicament on a priority basis.”