Quezada is a student who may not have a future. No matter how hard Quezada works or does well in school, chances are no one will hire Quezada for anything other than menial labor. Quezada is an undocumented student and if the congress passes a Senate’s version of the immigration bill, Quezada world will change.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, proposed by Senator Arlen Specter, (R-PA) and others on April 7, would reform immigration laws, such as the guest worker program, enforce tougher border security plans, and incorporates the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act onto the bill. The bill is on hold, but could be the foundation for immigration reform if congress eventually acts.
Under the auspices immigration reform act, the DREAM Act would, “eliminate denial of an unlawful alien’s eligibility for higher education benefits based on state residence unless a U.S. national is similarly eligible without regard to such state residence, and authorize the cancellation of removal and adjustment to conditional permanent resident status of certain alien students who are long-term U.S. residents.”
The DREAM Act would enact two major changes to current law. The first provision would eliminate a federal legislation that penalizes U.S. states that provide in-state tuition to undocumented students, and the second provision could lead to permanent residency and citizenship for undocumented students that graduate college, said Josh Bernstein, National Immigration Law Center director of federal policy.
The second provision of the DREAM Act could change the lives of many undocumented students that graduate college and find themselves unable to secure jobs in their field of study because of their status.
“Once (students) get those degrees, it’s like what can they do now?” said Samantha Contreras, youth peer organizer of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “Without papers they can’t work legally in this country. It’s a dead end.”
That sentiment was echoed by Quezada, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution.
“It is hard knowing that when I graduate?.I won’t be able to get a job in the area that I studied in. But it’s not just that?..I can’t get a job period,” Quezada said. “At least not one where I can work legally and able to use my degree. It’s frustrating and disappointing?.I don’t want to wait on tables forever.”
Bernstein expressed similar sentiments, adding that undocumented students should be allowed to contribute to the economy.
“It’s a shame that these students who can contribute to the local economy, to the competitiveness of the country, and in fact can be part of the solution of the global economy, aren’t able to because of their legal status,” Bernstein said.
“We’re losing the benefits of having these students grow up here, get educated here, and when they are ready to contribute to society, they can’t because they are undocumented,” he said.
Bernstein said everyone could eventually value from legislation that provides education and legalization to undocumented students who grow up in the United States.
“It’s a windfall for taxpayers,” he said. “If these students receive an education and are able to obtain jobs, they will be able to contribute more to the economy by paying taxes, and ultimately it will cost taxpayers less in criminal justice and social services, because the higher an education someone receives the less likely it has been found that they get involved in criminal activities.”
Quezada said being labeled and stigmatized as a criminal because of one’s undocumented status undermines the reason most people come to the United States for a better life.
“It’s tough,” Quezada said. “We’re not criminals. Our families came here looking for a better life, but still, some people think that because you are not a citizen, that because we don’t have papers to be in this country, then we don’t have rights or deserve to go to school and to try to fix our situation.”
Bernstein said students like Quezada are treated unfairly after having greatly contributed to the U.S.
“What is right or fair for these students who have grown up in this country and done nothing wrong?” he said. “Is it fair to prevent them from going forward, and throwing away their accomplishments? It isn’t ? but it is fair to treat them the same way as everyone else, because they earned it through their work.”
Rudy Acuna, Chicana/o Studies professor and long-time Chicano activist, said the immigration laws have many faults. He said the immigration bill is woven in complexity.
“While the (DREAM Act) is better, it won’t help those (who) have been deported and came back to finish their studies,” he said. “It’s not a solution for everyone.”
Many students like Diaz, an undeclared sophomore major and undocumented student who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution, say they have undergone many struggles to remain in the United States to get a better education.
“I was deported three years ago, but I came back and went to school,” Diaz said. “My family came here when I was younger, and my parents filed for papers for all of us, for residency. We had a hearing ? .We thought we had a chance, but then we were deported. I was 17, but it doesn’t matter. I’m in the system, and because of that I don’t qualify (for the DREAM Act).”
Diaz worries that if imminent changes are not made to the DREAM Act, thousands of undocumented students will have few options after graduation.
“For many, our only crime was coming here undocumented as kids,” Diaz said. “I’ve worked hard and never had any problems, but unless changes are made to this bill, when I graduate, my options will be very limited. It’ll be limited for thousands of us.”
According to the DREAM Act summary, under the immigration reform bill, most students who came to the United States at the age of 15 or younger, and at least five years before the enactment of the Act, would upon graduation from high school and college, be eligible for conditional permanent residency, which would move them toward the eventual path of citizenship. Undocumented students must also have a “good moral character” and have not committed any crimes.
Contreras believes if the DREAM Act passes, it could help thousands of undocumented students.
“This bill has the potential to help millions of students when passed, and after that it would help approximately 65,000 undocumented students that graduate high school each year,” she said. “But in the end, it all depends on the final result…on how the bill is passed. Right now there are a lot of restrictions, a lot of things that would make things harder for students to qualify.”
“But after five years of lobbying for this legislation, and seeing it go through many changes, we think it’s good for passage this year,” she said.Bernstein, who expressed similar sentiments, said although some undocumented students will not meet certain requirements of the DREAM Act, if the act passes it would benefit other undocumented students.
“Unfortunately there are some people won’t be able to qualify for (the DREAM Act) the way it’s packaged now, but overall the benefits of this bill are great,” he said. “Students would be free of the fear of deportation. They will be able to use their degrees in legal jobs. Employers will have a competitive pool of candidates to choose from ? because the one thing about this bill is that it promotes education.”
“Students will be earning those degrees and that is something that we can all benefit from, because it’s adding to the power of the economy,” Bernstein said.
The benefits of making higher education and legal status available to undocumented students are something that U.S. citizens need to be educated on, he said.
Many of those students only enroll if they can pay in-state tuition.
Bernstein said close to 10 states, including
California, have passed legislation that allows undocumented students who have graduated high school in the United States to pay in-state tuition, versus out-of-state tuition. The cost difference can be thousands of dollars a year.
He said that undocumented students are not eligible for financial aid, and most come from low-income families, adding that allowing them to pay the lower in-state tuition does make a difference on whether or not these students decide to pursue a college degree.
Bernstein said penalizing states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition is wrong.
People need to understand that in-state tuition is not the same as free tuition, he said.
The DREAM Act increases the revenue several colleges and universities take in, Bernstein said, because schools benefit from the tuition of undocumented students.
“It’s about giving all the people that live and contribute in this country the same opportunities to succeed and move forward in life,” he said. “It’s something that they deserve because they work hard for it. They earned it.”
Bernstein said it is urgent to clarify immigration reforms now rather than later, so that students could receive education, and subsequently obtain the legal status that will allow them to use the degrees they earned.
As for Quezada, determination to be a successful graduate is only one wish for the future. The other is improving quality of life.
“I want to know that when I graduate I will be able to get a job with my degree,” Quezada said. “That it was not a waste of time. I know too many people that went to college, have these great degrees and can’t do a thing with them. I want a future. All I’m asking for is the chance to make something for myself. What’s wrong with that?”
Sandy Archila can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.