By: Joan Mendoza, Melissa Ellis, and Samira Yeganeh
Yarisell neatly stacks folded shirts into a tattered suitcase. She successfully completed her first semester at a university where she declared a major in field and environmental studies. Now she readies herself for a flight to Mexico. It is not spring break. She may never see her Los Angeles home again. She is undocumented.
Yarisell represents thousands of students and families who find deportation or a return to their homeland as the only reward for years of sacrifice and effort. She and thousands of others would benefit from the DREAM Act. NASW and many individual social workers support the passage of the DREAM Act, but much more must be done. Social workers need to have a greater understanding of the military component and its possible effects, alternative routes for attaining legal residency must be fought for, and the NASW must take a far more active and visible role in the battle to retain some of the nation’s most talented youth and families.
Yarisell is not alone. Approximately 65,000 talented and resilient undocumented teens graduate from American high schools each year, only to enviously watch their peers move on to college or the workforce.
We encourage undocumented children to excel in school and to aspire to a college education, yet current immigration policy prohibits them from attaining education beyond high school. In most states, undocumented students can legally attend college, but many do not have the financial means. Employment opportunities for undocumented youth are often underpaid and exploited. For students like Yarisell, who are working numerous jobs, taking time off from school to save and pay for tuition and living expenses may not be enough.
The DREAM Act and Its Implications
Last November, the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, failed to pass into law. The legislation would have offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States at a young age, had lived here for at least five years, had stayed out of trouble, and had enrolled in college or served in the military. It is estimated that 800,000 young people would have benefitted from the DREAM Act (Herszenhorn, 2010; America’s Voice, 2010).
The DREAM Act received support from organizations such as NASW (National Association of Social Workers), CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles), SALEF (Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund), CARECEN (Central American Resource Center), APALC (Asian Pacific American Legal Center), NAKASEC (National Korean American Service and Education Consortium), and the Korean Resource Center. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that passing the DREAM Act will allow “these young people to live up to their fullest potential and contribute to the economic growth of our country.”
When asked how the passage of the DREAM Act would impact her decision to leave, Yarisell shared that she “would stay in a heartbeat. I want to stay in college and I want to be able to give back to the country that has given me so much. But until it does pass, I will have to be separated from my family and move to Mexico in search of my dreams.”
At the 2011 NASW Legislative Lobby Days in California, one of our very own MSW candidates echoed Yarisell’s cry for reform. He stood before an audience of social work peers and called upon us to fight for the rights of undocumented students who, like him, find themselves struggling to meet the demands of rising tuition rates.
Although many progressive groups support the DREAM Act’s purpose, additions to the legislation in 2007 created a major split among supporters of immigration reform. Groups such as Union Del Barrio, the Association of RAZA Educators, the National Immigration Solidarity Network, American Friends Service Committee, and the National Lawyers Guild have spoken out against the passage of the DREAM Act. Traditionally, these organizations have supported legislation that improves the lives of immigrants and even supported the DREAM Act in its original form (American Friends Service Committee, 2010; Juarez, 2010; The Association of Raza Educators of Los Angeles, 2007).
Ron Gochez, high school teacher and member of Union Del Barrio, states that “while support for legalization of undocumented students is essential, it cannot be done by sacrificing a large majority of students that will enlist in the armed services.” Mr. Gochez has worked with students and parents to mobilize for immigration rights and believes the current DREAM Act is not a viable option for legalization in the current educational crisis.
Inclusion of a military option is at the center of DREAM Act opposition. Opponents argue that the choice of attending an institution of higher learning, as opposed to joining the military, to qualify for legal permanent residency is only feasible for a small number of undocumented youth. According to the Immigration Policy Center, because of the barriers to their continued education and their exclusion from the legal workforce, only between five and 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go to college. The other 90% to 95% of undocumented students would only be left with a military option to legalization. The military option appears attractive when proposed as a two-year commitment. However, the U.S. military does not accept two-year commitments, and soldiers must serve a minimum of eight years.
The National Immigrant Solidarity Network contends “the college option of the DREAM Act must also be looked at within the new higher education framework where the cost of attending college becomes another barrier. Throughout the country—and in California especially—the tuition or university fees at public universities have skyrocketed...a whopping 32% increase at the UCs and CSUs last year and 54% at community colleges.” With increasing tuition and the difficulties of being employed, the college option seems almost unattainable and can deter many undocumented youth from pursuing their college dreams. Opponents argue that for the DREAM Act to be truly effective, it must provide federal financial aid aside from loans and work study. Otherwise, many of those eligible for legalization through education will not be able to afford to go to college.
Changes Must Be Made
NASW supports the DREAM Act and any policies that ensure access to higher education for the children of immigrants and provide for efforts to remove penalties on the children of undocumented immigrants for their parents’ actions (NASW, 2009). Further, the NASW argues that the Code of Ethics calls for social workers to be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and to advocate for changes in policy and legislation that ensure all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic needs and to fully develop (NASW, 2008). As such, it is imperative that social workers understand the scope and impact of advocating for the DREAM Act as written. Although it would provide two paths for legalization for qualified youth, it would also carry with it the ramifications of exposing masses of youth to war.
Since it is more likely that undocumented youth will enter the armed forces rather than higher education, social workers must be prepared to help individuals, families, and communities deal with the aftermath of war. Currently, soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face unprecedented suicide rates, as well as an alarming rise in the diagnosis of PTSD. It is contradictory for social workers to push for the end of the wars abroad but support legislation that would expose a highly vulnerable population to the armed services without ensuring soldiers receive adequate services.
In its original format, the DREAM Act provided multiple avenues for gaining legal residency, some of which have since been removed. The lack of options forces many youth unqualified for college to seek military service. If more options were available, we would have fewer undocumented youth at risk of being injured, maimed, traumatized, or killed at war. If we are to support the DREAM Act, we must also fight to ensure that other options such as community service and vocations are available to students who may not qualify to go to college and who may be opposed to joining the military.
It is also important that we address the fact that even if students qualify for residency by attending college, the DREAM Act as written does not provide undocumented students access to federal financial aid. Many students who are currently or who will be attending college in the future, will not be able to afford college if only private funding and work-study are available. We as social workers must push for added financial assistance to the current DREAM Act, including access to federal grants and loans.
United in Action
“We are taught that we do what we do because we are helping, but I say if you are not part of an organization, then you are not really helping,” Ron Gochez told us. “You can be the best social worker, but no matter how great you are as an individual, you will not create the macro changes an organized group of people can create.” Countless social workers have battled at the forefront of immigration justice, but our lack of organized work for reform cripples our attainment of large-scale change. Although the NASW endorsement of the DREAM Act is a step in the right direction, there must be a stronger mobilization and push for reform NOW.
After the rejection of the DREAM Act in November 2010, many youth are taking more radical steps to have their voices heard. On April 5, 2011, seven college-age Latinos gathered in downtown Atlanta and passed around a microphone, announcing to the world that they were coming out of the shadows as illegal immigrants (Fausset, 2011). Then, in an act of civil disobedience, they sat down in the middle of a busy street and announced it again to a large and chanting crowd. When they were hauled off to jail, they even declared their status to a pair of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who proceeded to do nothing. Still, they said they had to implore other illegal youths to come out; they could not build a political movement with a population in hiding (Fausset, 2011).
DREAMers, as many students call themselves, are determined to bring attention to their cause and show the nation the urgency around immigration reform for students. They are willing to sacrifice their own security for the well being of all undocumented youth. It is time we rise to the challenge and organize with them.
One important aspect of the DREAM Act that is overlooked but must be addressed is its implicit criminalization of the parents of these DREAMers. Supporters of the act argue that the children of undocumented immigrants are not to blame for their parents’ choices; they did not choose to be brought to the U.S. illegally. Whereas at face value this may seem like a solid argument, in supporting this argument we are also implicitly supporting the notion that their parents’ act was in fact criminal. Such a statement can have profound effects on the greater immigration reform campaign. “I am opposed to any wording that implies that my parents’ leaving Mexico because there were no jobs and they could not afford to feed us is a criminal act. My parents came here out of necessity. They wanted a better life for us. Plus, they didn’t force me to stay here, I chose to stay here because I didn’t want to be separated from my parents and because I really wanted to go to college,” shared Yarisell.
Attention must also be brought to the fact that the DREAM Act is not a Latino issue—it is an act that would have an impact on a diverse group of youth. Most of the organizations working to have the DREAM Act pass are Latino-oriented organizations. However, data from both the CSUs and UCs show that an overwhelming majority of undocumented college students are in fact of Asian descent. Thus, it is imperative that undocumented students mobilize across ethnicities.
With the bill dead for the foreseeable future—especially given the GOP majority in the House—social workers must work to educate and organize communities to fight for the changes they want to see. President Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to overhaul immigration but has offered little else. Washington continues to abdicate its authority to the states, and little legislative action has taken place. Social workers must organize to apply pressure to local state governments to vocally support a DREAM Act that provides more paths to legalization and provides federal financial aid for college students. Local governments can be pressured into refusing to enforce laws that affect their residents and creating laws that provide support outside of legalization.
A vulnerable, untapped resource of children, who are having their aspirations cut off, waits in a legal limbo that will have profound effects on undocumented children and American society (Gonzales, 2008). If the nation continues down this path, we will lose a generation of potential and along the way drag down the American economy (Gonzales, 2008). The system is taking away from the nation’s well being as a whole. What will it take for social workers to unite and mobilize for a generation of talented youth and their families?
America’s Voice. (2010). Background briefing: The DREAM Act. Retrieved on February 12, 2011.
American Friends Service Committee. (2010, September 22). Commentary on the DREAM Act.
Fausset, R. (2011, April 10). Not targeted but not safe, young illegal immigrants push for a new policy. Los Angeles Times.
Gonzales, R. (2010). Born in the shadows: The uncertain futures of the children of unauthorized Mexican migrants. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine, United States—California. Retrieved February 12, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: Full T
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Juarez, A. (2010, September 22). Behind the latest version of the DREAM Act: Is this legislation we should support? National Immigrant Solidarity Network.
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The Association of Raza Educators of Los Angeles. (2007, October 15). A.R.E. Stance on the California DREAM Act.
Wexler Love, E. (2008). Aspirations, involvement, and survival: Immigrant Latino youth navigating school and community. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder, United States—Colorado. Retrieved February 12, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text.(Publication No. AAT 3434946).
Joan Mendoza received her BA in comparative literature from the University of Southern California in 2005. She is a founder and teacher at Film and Theatre Arts Charter High School in South Central Los Angeles. She is currently an MSW candidate at the USC School of Social Work.
Melissa Ellis received her BA from NYU in 2008 in metropolitan studies, where she graduated Cum Laude. She is currently an MSW candidate at USC School of Social Work.
Samira Yeganeh graduated Cum Laude from the University of California, Los Angeles with a BA in history. She is a graduate student in the University of Southern California and Hebrew Union College and a candidate for MA degrees in social work and Jewish nonprofit management.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Fall 2011, Vol. 18, No. 4, pages 15-17.