Issue October 4, 2011

American dream deferred

High school grad aspires to attend college but lives in fear of deportation as DREAM Act languishes

Barbara recently graduated from a Jefferson County high school where she received good grades, was a member of the National Honor Society, and even completed six college credit hours. The 19-year-old excelled in law and government classes, gets high praise from her teachers and wants to someday become a lawyer. She is the veritable model student and citizen.

But as much as she would like to attend a state university, she is stuck working at a local restaurant, afraid of being deported.

Brought to the United States by her parents at age 10, Barbara (name used to protect her identity) is one of the 65,000 high school graduates in America every year who are undocumented and living in the shadows between limited opportunity and deportation.

Barbara’s future in college and law school depends greatly on the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would give graduates like her a potential path to citizenship. However, the legislation is languishing in Congress as up to 2.1 million young people like Barbara nervously wait for an opportunity to emerge from the shadows and pursue the American dream.

In the meantime, Barbara finds herself stuck between two worlds. She can stay here, working in a restaurant and scraping together enough money with her boyfriend of four years to go to a community college she can afford — she fears applying for student aid at a larger university might attract attention — or go back to Mexico.

“I’ve been accepted to a community college, but I think I have the potential to do more than just that,” Barbara says.

“At the restaurant, there is a possibility that tomorrow I’m still going to have a job, but it’s not a guarantee. It’s just a maybe. At a university, I’m guaranteeing myself that there’s going to be a tomorrow, that I’m building a better future for myself, and I’m building a better tomorrow for my community, because I hope to help other people.”

Though Barbara has relatives in Mexico, returning to her homeland would mean starting over at a disadvantage.

“Once you’ve been here so many years, going back to Mexico is not an option anymore, because people have to start all over,” Barbara says. “You have to have a diploma from a Mexican high school to go to college in Mexico. And they don’t take your credits from America.”

Hence, Barbara finds herself choosing between the suboptimal.

“I can’t go back, I can’t stay here. I’m stuck in between,” she says. “There is this big wall standing in front of us that’s saying ‘don’t move any further.’ And the DREAM Act is the only thing that could break that wall and allow us to make our dreams come true.”

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) would provide a conditional path to citizenship for people who immigrated to America when they were 15 or younger, have been in America for five consecutive years prior to enactment of the bill, have a high school diploma or GED, are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application, and have “good moral character.” If a person completes two years of a four-year college or enlists in the military, after six years they will be able to apply for legal citizenship.

It once looked like the DREAM Act would pass Congress — as it had bipartisan support — but with the current political environment in D.C., its outlook appears grim.

Last December, it passed the House by a 216-198 vote, largely along party lines (though U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-6, voted against it). Though it had the support of the majority in the Senate, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell orchestrated a filibuster to kill the bill later that month, the second time he had done so in four years. Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth was the only member of the Kentucky delegation to vote for the bill.

“For those who are in this country through no fault of their own and want to contribute to our economy or serve the United States in the Armed Forces, the DREAM Act offers a path to a legal status,” Yarmuth tells LEO Weekly. “These hard-working people have obeyed our laws, learned our language, paid our taxes and — in many cases — are willing to sacrifice all for our nation. They deserve the opportunity to help strengthen our country without fear of reprisal.”

Though the legislation has the vocal support of President Obama, Republican control of the House and the lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate means its eminent passage is doubtful.

Given the fate of other immigrant students in Barbara’s situation in Kentucky, it’s clear her fear of deportation is founded.

Two students at Lexington’s Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC), Julio Martinez and Jennifer Abreu — both brought to America as children by their parents fleeing violence — were arrested last year and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), becoming poster children in Kentucky for the need to pass the DREAM Act.

Both are still in Kentucky and enrolled at BCTC. Martinez is somewhat safe, as he was granted conditional residence due to his unique situation and must check in with the immigration office once a year. Meanwhile, Abreu’s status is much more unpredictable, as she tells LEO Weekly she has a November court hearing to determine whether she is allowed to stay in Kentucky to finish school and build a life.

“They have low-priority and high-priority, and I hope they’re more lenient toward students who don’t have a criminal record or anything,” Abreu says. “I’m hoping that will help me. But we’re not exactly sure.

“For me it’s been a struggle, and it’s not what I wanted in my life, but I guess it made me who I am today. I want to help people with information about my situation, try to educate and empower people. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to finish my degree, but I’m not stopping there. I think it showed me what I wanted to do with my life, and that I could do good things with it.”

Barbara and her boyfriend also fear — for her and their friends in the same situation — legislation that made its way through the state Senate earlier this year in Frankfort.

Senate Bill 6, the brainchild of state Senate president and Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams, mirrored similar immigration reform legislation passed in several states this year. The bill would have given law enforcement the right to ask for documentation confirming the citizenship of anyone they suspect of being undocumented and the ability to detain the person if they do not have the necessary paperwork in their possession. The bill passed easily in the Senate (with the support of some Democrats), but was not passed by the House.

As for the DREAM Act, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul put his opposition to this path to citizenship for children brought into the country by their parents in rather stark and unforgiving terms during his campaign last year.

“Washington liberals are trying to push through the so-called DREAM Act, which creates an official path to Democrat voter registration for 2 million college-age illegal immigrants,” said Paul, also referring to the bill as “the Washington elitists’ roundabout way of giving amnesty to illegal immigrant students and undermining the rule of law.”

When asked how she feels about politicians who vocally advocate for bills like SB 6, or against the DREAM Act, Barbara wishes they would try putting themselves in her shoes.

“Do you understand I have nowhere else to go?” Barbara says. “This is it. Nobody ever told me when I was a child that if I came to America, there was going to be a point where I wasn’t going to be able to move any further.

“The DREAM Act focuses on those students that want to do something, that want to actually succeed. It’s not like anybody could apply for the DREAM Act and you have citizenship. It’s just the people who are willing to wake up every morning, who are willing to work, to study, to be able to do something and actually succeed in some way. And I don’t think they understand that.”

Both Barbara and Jennifer Abreu have helped lobby and advocate for the DREAM Act and against SB 6, but Barbara remains understandably cautious in doing so, as she still fears being discovered and deported.

“And it’s not like we can speak up, because speaking out is like a crime,” Barbara says. “And it’s funny, because we’re standing in the land of freedom, right? And then you can’t be yourself, you can’t say ‘I’m from somewhere’ without someone asking you, ‘So do you have papers?’ So you’re better off not saying anything.”