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Students Organize for the Dream
In today's struggling economy, college graduates rarely turn down job offers. But Lizbeth Mateo has no choice. The 5'1", soft-spoken graduate of California State University, Northridge (CSUN) received offers to work for several human rights NGOs -- her dream profession -- but Mateo had to decline because she doesn't have a Social Security number. Instead, she works six days a week cooking and cleaning at a local deli.
Although Mateo graduated high school and college in the United States, speaks a firm California Spanglish, and knows more about her adopted Los Angeles than her native Oaxaca, Mexico, she's still legally an outsider.
"[Being undocumented] is something that's with you the whole day," she says. "We forget about it sometimes, but it's always there with you, day and night."
For the past several years Mateo has been volunteering her time to be a part of a growing national network of college and community-based organizations working to gain public and legislative support for the Dream Act. She describes the proposed law as "a ray of hope for thousands of undocumented students who want to stop living underground." Like many of her peers, she divides her time between full-time work and activism. This sacrifice means that she seldom sees her family and risks being deported for discussing her legal status openly.
"My dad starts to cry because he doesn't want me to be in this situation and, in a way, told me that he feels guilty," Mateo says. "He shouldn't feel like that because, thanks to my parents' decision, I am what I am today. I'm very thankful to them for that decision, for having the courage to leave their family and everything they knew."
According to the United States Census Bureau, there are about 2.5 million (PDF) undocumented youth under 18 living in the U.S. Roughly 65,000 undocumented youth who have lived in the United States for five years or longer graduate from high school each year. But only 20 percent (PDF) of undocumented students who have lived in the U.S. for five years or longer, like Mateo, enroll in post-secondary education.
The Dream Act -- officially known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- is a proposed bill in Congress that would allow undocumented students a path to become conditional permanent residents and apply for federal and state financial college aid. After a failed run in 2007, the federal bill was officially re-introduced before Congress this year by Senator Dick Durban (D-IL), and has seen several state-based iterations over the past decade.
Among its conditions: students must graduate high school, be of "good moral character," have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years before the law's enactment, be younger than 35 years old and attain at least an associate's degree or complete two years of military service.
The proposed legislation has become a lightening rod in the national debate over immigration reform. Opponents claim that the bill rewards undocumented students whose parents committed the federal crime of crossing into the U.S. Dan Stein, executive director for the anti-immigration reform group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) referred to the bill in a 2003 press release as a "massive giveaway of higher education to illegal aliens [at] a time when every state university system is raising tuition and cutting education benefits."
Some immigrant rights activists oppose the Dream Act's military service provision. The argument is that while a relatively small percentage of undocumented youth would gain legalization through attending college, the majority would be coerced into the armed services in order to stay in the U.S. -- unfairly putting their lives at stake.
For Mateo, the Dream Act isn't just a political football -- it's her life. When she set off for Santa Monica College in 2003, Mateo didn't expect to become an activist. As an undocumented student, she didn't qualify for state or federal financial aid, so she had to take a full-time job at Venice Beach to pay for school.
One day, during her two-hour bus commute, she saw a young woman named Alma. Mateo recognized Alma from one of her classes, where she was collecting signatures to support the Dream Act. Eventually, Alma explained the measure to Mateo, who realized that the legislation was speaking to people exactly like her.
The two are now best friends. "We understand our struggle more than anyone else," Alma said. "If we don’t get involved, then nobody will understand our struggle."
After they both transferred to CSUN, Alma and Mateo founded a support group for undocumented students called "Dreams."
Many of the students in the group feared publicly identifying themselves and risking deportation, so for almost a year they met secretly twice a week early in the morning. Unbeknownst to Mateo and the rest of the members of Dreams, there was another group of undocumented students (calling themselves "Heard") meeting in a building less than 500 feet away.
The two groups eventually merged to become "Dreams to be Heard" and they now have more than 20 members. Together, they have participated in hunger strikes and lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. in support of the Dream Act. They're also part of a statewide network of high school and college student organizations called the California Dream Network. On top of educating students and faculty about the challenges facing undocumented students at CSUN, the group also organizes fundraisers that support undocumented students.
Similar lobbying and support networks are organized on a national level, mainly through the internet, with websites such as DreamActivist.org.
Mateo recalls how the climate of organizing for the Dream Act was initially one of fear and isolation. Students were afraid of being stigmatized, or even deported. Now, with more public support, Mateo says that they're much more open about their battle.
"We're asking for a reform not because we want to take these resources to our countries of origin," Mateo explains. "This is our home, the place we were raised, where we went to school [and] we want to stay."
Positive Impact on the Economy
While undocumented students have found more avenues for activism on college campuses, they still face a great deal of anti-immigrant rhetoric and discrimination. Mateo points to some anti-immigrant activists who often accuse undocumented immigrants of having a negative impact on the economy by unfairly benefiting from public resources.
William Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and a former researcher for the RAND Corporation, argues that the opposite is true.
The numbers from Los Angeles County help bolster his claim. Perez says that contrary to popular refrains by anti-immigrant activists, the main beneficiaries of state programs are not undocumented students. In 2004, Los Angeles County reported that 93.9 percent of CalWORKs cases, 88.1 percent of general relief cases, and 90.3 percent of food stamp cases were initiated by documented residents. The program most utilized by undocumented immigrants was medical assistance, and those numbers only represented 4.1 percent of all cases, according to the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
Perez also points to the test-case of Texas, which enacted its own state-based form of the Dream Act in 2001. For every dollar invested in the Texas higher education system, the state received more than a five-dollar return to the local economy, according to a report by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
In 2006, the Texas Comptroller also reported that undocumented immigrants produced $1.58 billion in state revenues, which exceeded the $1.16 billion in state services they received. Without the contributions of undocumented workers in the 2005 fiscal year, the state of Texas would have seen a loss of $17.7 billion to the gross state product.
Perez argues that all of the studies that look at the potential economic impact of the Dream Act show that the act would be a net benefit. An educated workforce is more beneficial to the country's economy in the long-run because college graduates earn twice as much as those without high school diplomas. That ultimately means there would be more taxable income going back into state and federal budgets. This fall, Perez, who got his legal status during the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, will offer these arguments, and more, in his forthcoming book, We Are American: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream.
Staying With the Fight
Since she graduated from CSUN, Mateo has been working six days a week in a deli, cleaning and cooking. Even though she wants to go to law school, she hasn't applied yet because she's saving up money and waiting for the Dream Act to pass.
Although she speaks optimistically about the Dream Act, Mateo admits that sometimes she doesn't want to hear more about the issue because of the rollercoaster of emotions she's experienced through her years as an activist.
If the legislation is not approved, achieving her dreams will take just a little longer. "It doesn't matter if nothing changes," she says. "At least we changed and that's something."
Watch a video interview with Lizbeth: