By Irene M. Ota, Diversity Coordinator & Development Officer, College of Social Work, University of Utah and Trinh Mai, Assistant Professor/Lecturer & Special Assistant to the Dean on Community-Based Research, College of Social Work, University of Utah
You’ve grown up in Salt Lake City, attended elementary, middle and high school here. This home, community and country are all you have known. You feel as American as many of your peers. But you cannot drive or work legally, and in many states, you cannot pursue higher education. You live with the knowledge that you can easily be arrested and sent to another country, one that only lives in your vague memories and imagination. You have limited choices for your future, just as you had limited choices in your past. You did not have a choice when your parents brought you to this country as a child.
This reality exists for an estimated 2.1 million undocumented minors living in the United States. It is a common perception that these individuals consist of only those who are of Latino/a descent. However, there are over 1.5 million undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders as well. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the “DREAM Act”) is a federal, bipartisan-supported legislation that seeks to address this situation by creating a pathway to citizenship for thousands of young students. The DREAM Act, introduced in March 2009 and reappearing on the U.S. Senate floor for a vote this September, 2010, would allow these students to apply for conditional legal status, granted if they meet all of the following requirements:
• they were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16, and are below the age of 35,
• they have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years prior to the passing of the legislation,
• they have graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, and
• they have good moral character with no criminal record.
Once the students are granted conditional legal status, they are given a six year period to meet the condition of completing two years of college or military service. If this is achieved, the students would be eligible to continue with legal permanent residency status and, in due time, citizenship. If not, students could face deportation. Research projects that 38% of all eligible students or 825,000 would become citizens if this legislation passes.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of the original sponsors of the DREAM Act, said that, “although these children have built their lives here, they have no possibility of achieving and living the American dream. What a tremendous loss for them, and what a tremendous loss to our society.” Thousands of individuals cannot join the workforce, helping business and the economy by filling crucial needs. Employers who pay undocumented immigrants “under the table” avoid paying taxes and contributing to Social Security. Without the DREAM Act, our society’s values of rewarding good character and hard work are denied to these individuals. They are denied the rewards of their talents and achievements in the land where they grew up and live.
Opponents of the DREAM Act have cited a variety of reasons for their opposition. Some senators labeled the DREAM Act as amnesty that would only encourage further illegal immigration. Others have said the DREAM Act, though worthy legislation, should only be enacted as part of a comprehensive immigration reform.
As we work toward a more comprehensive immigration solution, passing the DREAM Act this year will allow the U.S. to start benefiting from the hard work, talent, and commitment of educated immigrants, while strengthening immigrant communities. It will also relieve some of the backlog that currently afflicts the immigration system. If Congress fails to act this year, another class of outstanding, law-abiding high school students will graduate, unable to plan for their educational and professional future. The injustice of punishing children for the actions of their parents aside, it is simply bad public policy to throw away the talent that we have invested in from K-12 by deporting talented students and accruing losses in human and financial capital.
We can join the federal advocacy effort by assuring that Utah Senators Hatch and Bennett know our support for the DREAM Act. The University of Utah College of Social Work will host a photo exhibit from September 8-13, 2010, in the Community Meeting Room of the Goodwill Humanitarian Building (395 South 1500 East, Salt Lake City) to shed light on the life stories of undocumented students in our local community. The public is invited to join us for an opening reception on Wednesday, September 8 at 5:30 pm (program at 6:00 pm) to learn more about the photo exhibit and the DREAM Act. Petitions will be available for supporters to sign.
Read more about the exhibit and the reasons behind it here in the Salt Lake Tribune “U. Exhibit Gives Voice to Undocumented Students” — http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/50219124-76/utah-students-undocumented-college.html.csp?page=1