By Nayeli Santoyo
Born in Manila, Carla N. was 5 years old when her family brought her to this country. “Our papers haven’t been fixed, and I have been undocumented since,” she said.
Now 21, Carla N., who asked that her full name not be used, attends the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is a senior studying art education and English.
Still undocumented, Carla said she worries about her future. She is one of many young immigrants who were brought to the United States while still children by parents who were looking for a better life. Like many others, Carla was disappointed when the House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act this week but was pulled from a vote by the Senate leadership on Thursday to avoid defeat. The DREAM Act is legislation that would create a path to citizenship for a special category of illegal immigrants, those who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Under the act, qualifying undocumented youth will be eligible for permanent residency if they enroll in college or serve in the military and wait for six years. They can then apply for full citizenship.
Like so many other young people seeking permanent status here, Carla is involved in many advocacy organizations such as Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the Asian American Institute.
“A lot of us are living in the shadows,” Carla said. “I knew I wanted to go to college; I was like a straight A student…but in my junior [year] I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go to college.”
Carla’s older sister went to a community college because she didn’t have the money to pay for a four-year institution and did not know how to apply to a university due to her legal status.
Carla asked her counselors, and they directed her to schools that were more lenient in their admissions policies. She applied at UIC but since she didn’t have a Social Security number, she had to apply as an international student.
Carla’s parents pay in-state tuition, but she can’t get government help such as loans or grants. She said all she can apply for are private scholarships.
In one more year, Carla will graduate, and she is hoping that she will have the opportunity to obtain residency to be able to work using her degree.
Many other young adults want to continue college but are afraid of what is going to happen when they graduate. Evelyn Perez, 24, a student and worker, said she got her residency when she was graduating from high school but that she feared her dreams would never come true.
“I live for my dreams. I always wanted to go to college and be someone in this life. I’m the first one from my family to actually go to college, and I’m very proud,” Perez said. “I can imagine what these kids are going through, and I really hope the DREAM Act will be approved.”
Perez said she has a cousin who is undocumented and she wishes she could help her because she knows she is struggling.
“She is only 21 years old. Her first language is English. She is American, all her family is here, and she can’t go to college because she can’t afford it,” said Perez. “She has a daughter and she works in a factory for the minimum wage; she is very smart and she wants to become a better person not only for herself but for her daughter.”
Perez said she doesn’t understand why Congress won’t pass the DREAM Act, since it is not the young immigrants’ fault they were brought here as dependent children. She said this is beyond an immigration issue and more like a human rights issue.
“The right to be able to help these kids to be educated — what if one of those kids is going to be the person that will discover the cure for cancer?” Perez asked.
Not everyone agrees with Perez.
Marco Garcia, 20, lives in Logan Square and was born in Chicago. He said the bill is not fair for all the immigrants who live in this country. He said there are older people who are hard workers who also deserve the opportunity to become legal residents, but they will not be covered by the DREAM Act.
“It’s either help everybody or help none because not everyone is in college or the army,” Garcia said.
Others oppose the DREAM Act as well.
An article posted by the PR Newswire, United Business Media, said the DREAM Act might reduce educational opportunities available to U.S. citizens.
The article said each immigrant who attends a public institution would receive a tuition subsidy of about $6,000 from taxpayers each year. According to the article, the DREAM Act will cost taxpayers $6.2 billion a year and since funds to attend college are limited, this will reduce U.S. citizens’ opportunity to obtain an education.
According to the DREAM Act website, the path to citizenship would include conditional permanent residency, which is similar to legal permanent residency. This would allow applicants to work, drive and travel as well as be eligible for student loans and federal work-study programs. They would not be eligible for federal financial aid such as Pell grants.
The requirements are: They must have entered the United States before the age of 16, must have graduated from a United States high school, or have obtained a GED or have been accepted into an institution of higher education, such as a college or university; must be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application and must not have an arrest record.
This DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, said Catherine Salgado, director of communications of ICIRR. “We have been working. It’s an ongoing work generating support form different schools, Democrats and Republicans,” Salgado said.
She said ICIRR is working to get more support and joining events to create awareness about this issue.
“Every minute is important,” Salgado said. “The DREAM Act impacts every generation.”
Maria De La Torre, an admissions officer at Northeastern Illinois University, said when students apply to enter college, they need a Social Security number. Since they don’t have one, they have to answer the question by either writing zeros or nines.
De La Torre added that undocumented students can’t fill out an application for federal loans or grants because it is a federal document.
Jeff Hoker, 48, a resident and employee in Chicago, said the DREAM Act is like an investment, because immigrants grow up in this country and they are not going anywhere; therefore, educating them will make the country better.
“They are already here. They learned the language. They don’t know anything about the [country they left behind], they know this culture,” said Hoker. “I just think that it will be beneficial for everybody and humanitarian.”