A renewed push to pass ‘Dream Act’

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON — Early one morning in March, two Chicago-area brothers were dozing on an Amtrak train when it stopped in Buffalo, N.Y. A pair of uniformed Border Patrol
agents made their way through the car, asking passengers if they were
U.S. citizens. No, the vacationing siblings answered honestly, with
flat, Midwestern inflections: We’re citizens of Mexico.

And so it was that college students Carlos Robles,
20, and his brother Rafael, 19 — both former captains of their high
school varsity tennis team — found themselves in jail, facing

Their secret was out: Despite their upbringing in
middle America, their academic success and their network of native-born
friends, they had no permission to be in the United States. Their parents had brought them here illegally when they were younger.

The Robles brothers, now out of jail but fighting
removal in Immigration Court, are among thousands of young illegal
immigrants in similar situations, living at risk of being expelled to
countries they barely remember.

Two weeks ago, a Harvard University student who came from Mexico at age 4, Eric Balderas, joined their ranks after he was arrested by immigration agents at an airport in San Antonio.

These immigrants are known in some circles as “Dream
Act” kids, named after proposed legislation that would grant them legal

Their cases underscore a contradiction in the Obama
administration’s approach to immigration enforcement. Even though the
president supports the Dream Act — which would provide a path to
citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children who enroll
in college or the military — his enforcement bureaucracy continues to
pursue deportation cases against the increasing number of students who
would be protected by it. It’s part of a push that is on track to
remove a record 400,000 illegal immigrants this year.

“It highlights the inconsistencies in immigration policies,” said William Perez, a Claremont Graduate University professor and author of “We Are Americans,” a book about undocumented immigrant students.

Immigration authorities say they rarely deport
students, particularly once their teachers, coaches, friends and
elected representatives speak out on their behalf.

Balderas, for example, was placed in “deferred
status,” meaning the government won’t remove him unless he gets in
trouble. Even so, the young people remain in legal limbo, often unable
to land a professional job after earning a degree. And they live with a
legal sword of Damocles over their heads, subject to removal at any

“These cases illustrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “ICE uses its discretion on a case-by-case basis, as appropriate.”

Carlos and Rafael Robles were on their way to visit a friend at Harvard — not Balderas — when they were arrested. They spent a weekend in jail before friends posted $5,000 bond for each of them. They had to travel to Buffalo again recently for a court hearing after an immigration judge turned down their request to move the case to Chicago. Their next court date is next year.

Their father works for a car dealer, and their
mother is an assistant at a mortgage company. They came to the U.S. by
airplane five years ago on a tourist visa and never went back.

“We want to go to school and to work here,” Carlos Robles said.

Several residents of their community, a Republican-leaning Chicago suburb where most people have little patience for illegal immigration, have written letters on their behalf, said Robert Carroll, a teacher at Palatine High School.

“Gee whiz, these are just two quality kids,” he
said. “They are everything you would want your kids to be. These kids
are going to be leaders in their communities — taxpayers, not tax

In recent months, immigration rights activists have renewed their push to persuade Congress
to pass the Dream Act. Activists have staged hunger strikes and
occupied congressional offices. This month, about 30 students marched
outside the Los Angeles office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein is a co-sponsor of the Dream Act, but activists have criticized Democrats for not moving the bill this year.

“Immigration reform may be dead this year, but we feel that smaller pieces like … the Dream Act can move forward,” said Marisol Ramos, founding board member of the national United We Dream network. “Democrats should really step up.”

The Dream Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and others, came up eight votes short in the Senate in 2007, when an effort to overhaul immigration law fell apart. The following year, then-candidate Barack Obama urged its passage during a presidential debate, saying that youths who
“have essentially grown up as Americans” deserve legal status. But
Obama has done little to push the bill as president.

After meetings with immigration rights groups this month, Senate leaders were hopeful they could move a Dream Act bill this year, a senior Senate aide said.

But proponents have to overcome opposition from
those who say the measure would grant amnesty to a far larger circle of
illegal immigrants than the college students who have become the faces
of the movement.

Under the proposed legislation, when the youths become citizens and turn 21, they could sponsor their parents for green cards.

“It would lead to chain migration,” said Roy Beck,
executive director of NumbersUSA, which supports stricter controls on
immigration. “And they would create a lot of extra competition for our
own students.”

There are dozens of undocumented students attending Ivy League
and other selective universities and hundreds at state schools, he
said. They often speak flawless English and have few memories of their
native counties. Many were not aware they were illegal until they began
applying to college.

“I grew up thinking I was just like everybody else,” said Jessica Lopez, 19, who just finished her first year at Cal Poly Pomona. “That is when it hit me, ‘I am undocumented.’ “

Lopez is trying to avoid deportation to Mexico
— a country she hasn’t seen since she was 7. Her family came to the
attention of authorities after her father’s employer initiated, then
withdrew, petitions to secure green cards for the family, she said.

Lopez graduated near the top of her high school class in Pomona, then was accepted to UC Berkeley, UCLA and Bates College in Maine. She decided on Cal Poly Pomona because it was less expensive — and as an illegal immigrant, she couldn’t qualify for federal aid.

Lopez, who is studying to become a chemical
engineer, is gathering letters of support from her professors, coaches
and counselors to present at the next Immigration Court hearing. At the
same time, Lopez said, she is praying that the Dream Act passes.

“We are all just crossing our fingers,” she said. “It will benefit so many of us. It’s not just me.”


(c) 2010, Tribune Co.

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