This post is part of a series called Race Revelations. Aida is a student at IU, and wrote a paper on the DREAM Act for a class. It is deeply personal, and a great analysis on the practicality of this legislation – putting flesh and blood on something that is more than about simply opening up our borders. The following includes excerpts from it. More information about the series can be found here.
I have known Alex since my childhood. I think of her as a sister; however, my bias does not change her story. Alex journeyed to the United States of America from South America at the age of thirteen. She was raised in a divorced home and her father was never in the picture. After her mother’s unexpected death from a brain hemorrhage, Alex joined her aunt’s family in Bloomington, Indiana – they were the only family she had left. As a minor, Alex had no say as to whether or not she would remain in South America. Her fate was in the hands of her guardians.
Alex’s aunt and uncle entered the United States one month before her arrival. While her aunt, uncle, and cousins received social security numbers upon arrival, Alex failed to qualify for her own social security number. The United States stopped giving social security numbers without green cards to immigrants upon Alex’s arrival. She began attending a local high school two weeks after her entered the States. In South America, she had attended a private Catholic school of three hundred students. The Bloomington high school that she enrolled in had a student population of two thousand. Alex was bullied and within the first week of school – a rumor was spread that she was a lesbian. She knew no English. She had not said a word to anyone.
After her first semester of high school, she received notice that she did not have the proper documentation to continue her high school education. After a family friend discussed her case with the Monroe County Community School Corporation superintendent, she was accepted back into the school system. Technically, according to Plyler v. Doe, Alex was always eligible to remain in the Monroe County public school system. She is still unsure as to how the school corporation thought they could expel her.
She learned conversational English in six months and after one year she was able to interpret American slang and coursework-specific terminology. Alex turned in all of her homework assignments, worked closely with her teachers, and completed freshman and sophomore years with D’s in only Nutrition & Wellness and Algebra. Her junior and senior years in high school resulted in mostly A’s and a few B’s. The school counselor insisted that the Spanish-English barrier would require five years of high school – Alex achieved a high school diploma in three and one half years with a part-time job.
At this point Alex believed that her education would stop after high school graduation. She immediately started working as a full-time caregiver to an elderly woman. Her hours were 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day. She also babysat and cleaned a family friend’s home every weekend. However, her desire to learn helped her to overcome her academic situation. She began online coursework through the University of Phoenix and earned an associate’s degree in Small Business Management in one year. The program initially predicted that the degree required a two-year commitment.
While she was earning this Associate’s Degree, she volunteered as a youth spiritual leader at a local church. Alex’s work with Jr. High and Sr. High adolescents helped her realize her calling. She knew that she wanted to work with teenagers and she knew that she wanted to teach. Alex’s dream was to be a high school teacher. One day, Alex was selected as the church representative to attend a conference in Bloomington. This conference, which took place in the year 2003, would change life as Alex knew it.She decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification. But there was no way she could afford to go to college. Even worse, Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 forbids unauthorized students from receiving federal aid in their pursuit of a postsecondary education. Both the Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Reconciliation of 1996 and the Illegal Immigrant Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 keep undocumented high school graduates from receiving in-state or local advantages in order to fund their higher education. According to Chief Justice Warren Burger,
by definition, illegal aliens have no right whatever to be [in the United States], and the state may reasonably, and constitutionally, elect not to provide them with government services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state (Drachman).
Yet, what Chief Justice Burger did not take into account was that the undocumented students’ parents
fill a quarter of all agricultural jobs,
17 percent of office and house cleaning positions, [and]
14 percent of construction jobs and 12 percent in food preparation (www.fedstats.gov).
These unauthorized workers are populating the lowest income jobs in the United States. They have no means of paying for their children’s out-of-state college tuitions, nor do they have postsecondary college experiences to impress upon their children. As a result, “many undocumented immigrant children drop out of high school or do not take college preparatory programs because they do not believe they can afford college” (Badger). In 2008, the high school dropout rate was at 8% and 18% of these students were Latino (www.fedstats.gov). High school dropouts will inevitably work menial jobs, while those with high school diplomas will face higher unemployment rates than if they had attained bachelor’s degrees.
It is my belief that undocumented immigrants that were brought to the United States under their caregivers’ authority should not be punished for the illegal actions taken by their guardians.
…Alex may be foreign-born, but she identifies herself as an American. Other undocumented children, having lived their formative years in the States, feel that they are Americans and will in all likelihood never go back to their country of origin. Like Alex, most illegal children left no familial ties behind. Especially those that crossed the border under the their guardians’ authority.
Eventually Alex was able to attend Ivy Tech. She graduated from there and transferred to Indiana University-Bloomington. She was immediately accepted into the Education Program. Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in Education with a major in Spanish two years later. She graduated with a GPA of 3.8 and high honors. She was also inducted into the nationwide Pi Beta Kappa Honors Society.
Yet, even after graduating with a bachelor’s degree and two associate’s degrees, Alex is still not eligible to work in the United States. She says,
Teaching is where my heart and my passion lie. I didn’t go into the profession for the money. I went in to make a difference. I remembered teachers throughout my high school experience that made all the difference with just a little patience.
There is a direct correlation between completing some form of higher education and leading a fulfilling life. From a moral standpoint, depriving any human of the opportunity to live happily is unjust. From a public interest standpoint, depriving the nation of economic and societal contributors is inefficient. Without the appropriate in-state benefits or federal funding, undocumented students are kept from pursuing a postsecondary education. Alex recognizes that she would not have been able to continue onto her master’s degree without the goodwill of her past employer and the connections of family friends. State governments have realized that a college education is as necessary in today’s world as basic literacy was in 1982. Now it is time for the United States government to take a stance on this issue by signing the DREAM Act into law, for the sake of unemployed illegal immigrants like Alex, and for the sake of our country as a whole.
As we finish our interview, Alex says,
It’s always a fear to tell friends about [my illegal status] because [I] never know… Your true friends will care for you, no matter what your papers dictate… But sometimes it’s almost like you have a weird disease that has to be a secret; not necessarily because it’s contagious, but people would look at you differently. As if they don’t want to be associated with you… I want to help people. I hope that my story someday encourages those [undocumented students] that feel stuck.
I pick up the dinner check and make a joke, “At least you don’t have to pay taxes!” Alex responds half-jokingly, “I would happily pay taxes as long as I [could] live in this country without fear.”
(The paper was written 2 years ago. Since then with the passage of a few components of the Dream Act legislation, Alex has been able to get her driver’s license, green card, and social security number. She is currently still in school pursuing a degree in counseling.)