Mary Ann Pacheco still remembers a conversation with a former student, who had returned to campus after earning a college degree in architecture. ““I was talking to her and I said, ‘What are your plans for the future?’ And she said, ‘I don’t have a future – because I don’t have papers.’”
“Here she is, this beautiful young woman, full of talent and potential. She should be excited to go on and make a difference…and she can’t. It was just gut-wrenching.”
This week, Pacheco, a professor at California’s Rio Hondo Community College, has new hope for her undocumented students. The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for would-be architects and other college graduates, was reintroduced Wednesday in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
It has the active support of NEA leaders and members, like Pacheco, who see it as common-sense policy that will benefit not just these students but also their country – and this is their country. Many know no other place.
“These are students who are going to be making tangible contributions to society,” Pacheco said. “They are good kids, they are hard-working kids, and they are full of potential. We need to exploit that talent potential, and I mean that in the best of ways.”
Last December, the DREAM Act fell short of victory by just five votes. This time, its Senate sponsors — Dick Durbin (D-IL), Harry Reid (D-NV) and Robert Ménendez, (D-NJ) – are hopeful it will attract bipartisan support. “We are not giving up. This is a matter of justice,” Durbin said.
The re-introduction came just one day after President Barack Obama stood at the border between Texas and Mexico and called for a “good-faith effort” by both parties to pass comprehensive immigration reform measures. He noted that far too many excellent students are driven from this country after graduation – “We train them to create jobs for our competition.”
Oregon high school teacher Roger Berger knows those kids. He had a student who recently graduated at the top of her class, the winner of a prestigious science award with concrete plans to study pre-med at Stanford University. “She was the most positive student I’ve ever seen — good person, good grades, everything you’d want…” he said.
“And then her world came crashing down.”
Her parents had brought her here illegally so many years ago that she didn’t even know she was undocumented until she attempted to apply for college financial aid.
What happens to that child? And what happens to a country that denies its most talented residents?
NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen knows the answer: “Without the DREAM Act, these children will be condemned to live in the shadows of the country they love, surviving in an underground economy where they will be exploited and abused and where their gifts and talents will be lost to our communities – to our country’s future,” she said.
Up to 2.1 million undocumented youth are living in this country – mostly Latino and Asian-Pacific Islanders. (API students account for about 40 percent of undocumented youth.) But the actual numbers of potential “dreamers” are much smaller – the non-profit Migration Policy Institute estimated last year that about 38 percent of undocumented youth would meet the requirements.
That’s because the bill, which also is sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in the House, is aimed specifically at students with the greatest potential. To qualify, students must have entered the country when they were 15 or younger, and graduated high school or received a GED. The bill also requires them to complete two years of college or military service, show good moral character, and avoid criminal arrest.
“We’re talking about people with a track record,” Pacheco noted. “It’s not just them saying, ‘I promise to be good…’”