Eskelsen to Congress: It's Time to DREAM

There is new hope for Eric Balderas — and the hundreds of thousands of other undocumented students in the United States who would like to attend college or join the military, and grow up into productive, tax-paying residents of this country.

Balderas, a biology student on full scholarship to Harvard University and the valedictorian of his Texas high school in 2009, was arrested earlier in June by federal immigration agents while trying to board an airplane to Boston. Balderas, who left Mexico at the age of 4, feared deportation to a country that he could barely remember. “I can’t wait until this is past,” said Balderas, who wants to be a cancer researcher, to The Boston Globe. “I just like being down in the lab, doing my thing.”

The one thing that could assure Balderas of a quiet life in a laboratory is the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to bring to a vote during the ongoing lame-duck session of Congress. If it passes there, as well as in the House of Representatives,  Balderas and so many students like him would have a clear route to legal residency.

On Thursday afternoon, NEA Vice-President Lily Eskelsen spoke to a packed Capitol Hill hearing room, urging the bill’s swift passage. “I’ve talked to so many children who would be impacted by the DREAM Act and they all are incredible human beings. They told me, ‘We are not charity cases. We will love this country. We will not take it for granted.’”

Two of those students shared the spotlight with Eskelsen. One, a recent high school graduate from North Carolina hopes to become a U.S. Senator some day. The other, a Texan for 20 years, wants to use his education degree to teach in his state’s public schools.

“I believe this is the land of opportunity. That if you apply yourself, you can do well. I was an AP Scholar, I graduated with honors,” said Emilio Vicente, the North Carolinian who came here from Guatemala 13 years ago and has earned a full merit scholarship to his state university. “But in the end, none of it matters unless the DREAM Act passes.”

The new law proposes a path to legal status for up to 2.1 million young people – although the actual numbers who achieve it would likely be much smaller. (A study by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute predicted about 38 percent would qualify.)

The way it would work is, if you’re under the age of 35 and arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and have lived in the U.S. for at least the last five years and earned a high school diploma, you could apply for conditional legal status. Then, six years later, if you have completed at least two years of college or military service, and remain in good moral character, you may become a legal resident.

But consider that it’s not just about kids and their dreams, but also their wallets – and yours. A 30-year-old immigrant who graduates from college will pay $5,300 more in taxes and cost $3,900 less in government expenses each year than if she had dropped out of high school, according to a 1999 RAND study.

But even more specifically, the likely beneficiaries of the DREAM Act would earn between $1.4 and $3.6 trillion over the next 40 years, if they became legal residents, and pay billions and billions in state and local taxes, according to recent research by Raul Hinojosa of UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center. “The more education, the more opportunities — and that helps the economy,” said Michelle Waslin of the Immigration Policy Center.

It’s a short-term investment with huge returns, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Given the desperate need to have a better educated, knowledge-based workforce, we should move now,” he urged Senators last week. “I feel a real sense of urgency. We could wait another year or two or three years, but each year that’s another 65,000 kids without those opportunities.

The Act also has the strong support of President Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the legislation as a Senator, and the NEA – which has made it a part of its legislative platform for years. You also can urge your Congressmen to take action here.

“These are gorgeous, innocent children who will be condemned to a life in limbo if we don’t do something to help them,” Eskelsen urged. “Their talents and gifts will be lost — not to them… but to us.”

Photo: Office of State Sen. Gilbert Cedillo