Immigrants given new hope
DREAM Act would let states grant undocumented students in-state tuition

Electricity flows through a transformer near downtown Durango. Three new coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the region to serve projected
power needs in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

When Mario Hernandez (not his real name) was 16, he would work from 6 to 9 a.m., go to classes at Durango High School, and then return to work for three more hours at night. Somehow, he managed to pay his own way while maintaining A and B grades. He also participated in several civic and cultural programs, including one that helped at-risk Latino teens stay out of trouble.

But, when Mario graduated in 2002, instead of going to college to get a degree in social work as he wanted, he took a job in the kitchen at a local restaurant. A native of Tlaxcala, Mexico, Mario came to America five years ago illegally, and as a result is not eligible for in-state tuition or financial aid to attend college. Although he considers Durango his home, speaks fluent English and is completely immersed in the culture, the only way he can qualify to attend college is as a foreign student. However, with a 7-month-old daughter and a girlfriend to support, there is little left over from his $10 an hour job for savings.

Mario is one of an estimated 60,000 high school students who graduate from American high schools each year and face limited prospects for completing their education because they are undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center, in Washington, D.C. Although local estimates are hard to come by due to the anonymous nature of undocumented immigrants, Mario said he knows of at least 20 other Durangoans who also are in his shoes.

However, legislation pending in Congress could remove the educational barriers faced by U.S.-raised children of undocumented immigrants.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The bill died soon after, but a revised version was re-introduced in July 2003 and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2003. It now awaits action by the Senate, as its House companion bill, The Student Adjustment Act, awaits action in the House.

If passed, the bill would grant states the right to provide in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students who have spent the last five years in the United States, graduated high school and are in good standing with the law. If after six years the student has completed two years of college or two years of military service, he or she will be granted legal permanent residency.

For Latino rights and advocacy groups, the DREAM Act would be a major step toward allowing many young people, who had no say in coming to the country illegally, the opportunity to pursue higher education and consequently, higher-paying jobs.

“Kids don’t play a role in coming here, they’re just kids,” said Olivia Lopez, spokeswoman for Los CompaF1eros, a Durango Latino immigrant rights group that supports the DREAM Act. “But they learn the language, they do the Pledge, and when they do that, it speaks for their profound love for this country and the opportunity living here brings.”

In addition to providing a future for immigrants, proponents also argue that the DREAM Act would help address the immediate problem of drop-out rates.

Mario Hernandez talks recently of his life in Mexico and his new life in Durango, where he has lived for the last five years and now has a 7-month-old daughter. He works 40 to 50 hours a week at a local restaurant but would like some day to attend the University of New Mexico./Photo by Todd Newcomer

“A good number of undocumented students give up before they finish high school because they know they won’t be able to pursue higher education,” said Lopez. “This legislation would benefit young, productive members of our society who are dreaming about bettering themselves through education.”

Dede deHaro Brown, director of the Durango Latino Coalition, said several students who have come through her organization’s programs were not able to go on to college because of their illegal status.

“They have been here long enough, and their English skills are good enough, but they weren’t able to go,” she said.

With such dim prospects, she said dropping out often seems like the best option to these students.

“I know one student who’s 15 and he said, ‘My cousins are all working construction and they’re making good money,’” she said. “I think a lot of these students figure, ‘Why not quit when I’m 16 and work construction and at least make good money?’”

But by allowing these students to slip through the cracks, society is losing a precious commodity, said Lisa Duran, executive director for the Denver-based advocacy group Rights for all People. Duran said she personally knows undocumented immigrants who were valedictorians in their high school classes but now work at McDonald’s.

“To have them working at McDonald’s just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “To take this talent and flush it down the toilet is absurd.”

And while beneficiaries of the DREAM Act will improve their own futures, Duran believes the end 4 result will benefit all of society, as well.

“The DREAM Act really is about taking this incredible talent out of the high schools and making the most of it and not squandering it,” she said. “It’s about hard work and perseverance and taking these qualities and applying them to needs we have in this state.”

Although the DREAM Act has 40 congressional co-sponsors, including Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., its future in this year’s legislative session, which is already half over, is uncertain.

Alton Dillard, spokesman for Sen. Ben Campbell, R-Colo., said Campbell originally sponsored the bill but has since rescinded.

“He supports the intent of the bill but the current version he had some problems with,” Alton said. “He doesn’t want students who are here legally to get passed over.”

Dillard said Campbell has fiscal concerns as well.

“He’s waiting to see the numbers and cost of this kind of legislation and how much burden states would have to bear,” he said.

But Duran argues that there is much more to lose by not passing the DREAM Act.

“By not allowing these students to go to college, we don’t punish anybody but ourselves,” she said.

As for Mario, he asks opponents of the DREAM Act to do a role reversal.

“I just wish they would pretend they were in my shoes,” he said, “(in Mexico) with no money, no hope.”

Yet, as long as the DREAM Act stays alive, Mario said so does his hope – not just for himself but others, like his younger brother who is currently in high school

“Even if I give up hope of going myself, I just hope it works for other generations, like my brother,” he said. “That’s all I want, pretty much.”






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