Making the DREAM Act a Reality

For many of us at CMC, the American Dream has become less of a dream and more of an expected reality. We go to college, we get a job, and we reap the benefits. For some, however, the dream is far more difficult to attain. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, first introduced to Congress in 2001, aims to remove the barriers blocking the way to success for many within our nation's borders. If passed, the DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants under the age of 35 who were brought to the US as minors and graduated from an American high school. Those eligible would be granted a “conditional” citizenship status for a six-year period during which they would complete two years of study for a college degree or enlist in the military for the same amount of time. After six years, as long as they commit no major crimes, they would become eligible for permanent citizenship.

William Perez, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. Perez's research covers immigration and acculturation, making him Claremont's resident expert on the DREAM Act. I sat down with Dr. Perez to discuss his findings and learn the way in which he believes the Act would affect America and its immigration policies.

Perez sees the DREAM Act as a win-win idea. “There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year,” Perez states. “Among undocumented high school graduates between the ages 18-24, only 26% go on to receive higher education, compared to 60% of legal immigrants who graduate.” The statistics for high school show a similar gap. “Only 60% of undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18-24 have graduated from high school compared to 85% of immigrants with papers."

The DREAM act would help increase the percentage of well-educated citizens while decreasing the percentage of undocumented and mostly uneducated immigrants who fear deportation. Also, the Act aims to help children who were brought here not by their own accord, but by forces out of their control. The opposition against the DREAM Act, however, claims that these benefits would provide a new incentive for aliens to cross the borders illegally.

Dr. Perez attributes this claim to a common misconception about illegal immigration. He references Doug Massey, a demographer at Princeton who spent over two decades collecting data in Mexico. “Undocumented immigrants come to the United States looking for jobs,” Perez states. “In Mexico, they have to borrow three to five thousand dollars to get into the country when the average household only makes about one hundred dollars a month. They immigrate to find a job because there is a demand for their labor. Things like free health care and free schooling are not even part of the decision.” He also calls attention to the RAND Corporation, a group that after various studies came to the conclusion that undocumented immigrants proportionally under use social services. “For services like health care, they are more likely to pay cash,” Perez says, “because they are afraid.”

Fear also impacts student activism. Although there is a growing movement on university campuses, Perez says it’s still difficult to get undocumented students to speak openly about their beliefs. “The groups are sometimes secretive, and they may fear ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” says Perez. Hate groups only add to this fear. “If an undocumented student activist posts their phone number online for an upcoming event, he or she may receive all kinds of phone calls, telling them to leave the country or other terrible things,” adds Perez. Last year, UCLA student Nancy Meza distributed a press release about a DREAM Act demonstration that blocked traffic on Wilshire Avenue. Soon after, radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou began a movement to have her deported, including setting up a website which sold “Deport Nancy Meza” t-shirts displaying the toll-free number for ICE.

Perez firmly believes in what the DREAM Act would do for students. “These students are frustrated. It isn’t their fault they were brought into the country. They have graduated from high school and done everything people have asked of them. If they graduate from college, a new wall lies ahead when they can’t get a job. They are Americans without papers. Some don’t even speak Spanish.”

The DREAM Act was last presented to Congress as part of the 2010 National Defense Authorization act alongside Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was defeated. If introduced as a stand-alone bill, the DREAM act may fare better next time it is brought before Congress.

For more information about the DREAM act and the thousands of lives it could change, check out Dr. Perez's most recent book, We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream.