JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Irene Castellon, 19, is a bright, beautiful young woman studying Spanish at East Tennessee State University. She hopes to use her Spanish degree to help Latino Americans make a better life for themselves. Yet a year ago, college wasn’t an option for her because of her immigration status.
Currently, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. cannot receive financial aid for college. And because proof of legal status is required to open a bank account in the U.S., they cannot receive loans, either.
Each year, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools, according to the DREAM Act Portal, an online community of undocumented students. A majority of these students, like Castellon, have been living in the U.S. since early childhood, with hardly any recollection of the country they left behind. Yet, some of these students must return to their countries of origin to receive an affordable higher education.
What is the DREAM Act?
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (The DREAM Act) was reintroduced in Congress on March 26, 2009 by Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Originally, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah introduced a similar bill in 2001 “to amend the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to permit States to determine State residency for higher education purposes and to authorize the cancellation of removal and adjustment of status of certain alien college-bound students who are long-term United States residents.”
The Dream Act seeks to allow illegal immigrants legal permanent residency if they graduate from an American high school, entered the U.S. before they were 16, are between ages 12 and 35 at the time the law is enacted, and complete at least two years of college or military service within six years. To qualify, those interested must have been living in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years and must be of “good moral character.”
A California-based teacher’s group objects to the military service portion of the DREAM Act.
“The DREAM Act will create a de-facto military draft for our undocumented youth,” said members of the Association of Raza Educators in a 2007 statement. “We say de-facto because although students are given a ‘choice,’ the fact is that the deplorable and inadequate conditions of Latino schooling will make military enlistment the only ‘choice’ for our undocumented youth.”
The teacher’s group says the DREAM Act could potentially make Latino youth victims of war, if they serve in the military to obtain a green card.
“We believe that our students and our communities as a whole deserve full and immediate legalization without having to serve in the military,” they said in the statement.
In Castellon’s case, her family brought her to the U.S. so that she and her sister could receive a better education.
Born in Nayarit, Mexico, Castellon moved to the Tri-Cities area in 1994, when she was 5. Her father, a legal resident of the U.S., had been working as a migrant farmer for several years before this, traveling back to Mexico every couple of months to see his family.
When she was 8, her family began filling out applications to achieve permanent residency for her, her mother and sister, Karen.
It cost her family around $10,000 for Castellon, her mother and sister to become legal residents of the U.S., she said. And it took 10 years for her to finally be considered “legal,” 11 years for her sister.
Why students don’t apply
Most families, however, cannot afford to become legal citizens.
“Our students, even the undocumented ones, try really hard to make good grades,” said Ashleigh Shu, school counselor at Tennessee High School in Bristol, where very few undocumented students attend.
“When they [undocumented students] find out that college is not an option because of the financial burden on their families, it crushes their spirit.”
Shu said that not many undocumented students at Tennessee High apply for permanent residency because of financial reasons.
“Most of our [undocumented] students have lived here most of their lives,” Shu said before talking about a student who has dreams to attend an elite university, but may not be able to because he or she is not a legal resident.
“They deserve an opportunity for a better education,” said Castellon. “Their parents brought them here so they could pursue a better education so they won’t have to work in factories.”
Castellon, who attended Unicoi County High School, spoke about friends who made great grades in school but cannot attend college because their families cannot afford to pay out-of-state tuition.
“Very few were documented,” she said. “It’s discouraging because if they know they can’t go to college, there is no point in trying to make good grades.”
Shu said she is very excited about the possibility of undocumented students coming into her office and receiving answers about financial aid, should the DREAM Act become law.
“I’m also excited about the possibility of them becoming permanent residents,” she said. “I think a lot of them don’t know how to go about obtaining permanent residency, and neither do their parents.”
Opposition to the DREAM Act
Those opposing the DREAM Act think that offering legal permanent residency to illegal immigrants is like offering amnesty to a group of people who have disobeyed the law. In Tennessee, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker voted against the proposal.
“The problem with this legislation is that it extends government benefits to people illegally in the United States,” Alexander said in September 2007, when the bill was re-introduced in the Senate. “We cannot restore a system of legal immigration — which is the real American dream — if we undermine it by granting new benefits to those who are here illegally.”
“Sen. Corker understands the importance of higher education but has concerns about legislation that could have the effect of encouraging illegal immigration,” said Laura Herzog, Corker’s communications director.
The political action committee Americans for Legal Immigration has opposed the bill.
“This is the Bad Dream Amnesty Act,” said William Gheen of ALIPAC in 2007. “This legislation would replace American students in the limited seats in college at taxpayer expense. Our organization has helped to defeat this measure many times on the state level and now we will try to stop the Senate from passing it.”
Hatch, who is currently a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, argued that cheaper tuition for undocumented students does not solve the greater problem of their immigration status.
“While I do not advocate granting unchecked amnesty to illegal immigrants,” he said, “I am, however, in favor of providing children —children who did not make the decision to enter the United States illegally— the opportunity to earn the privilege of remaining here legally.”
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on El Nuevo Bristol Herald Courier.