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Dreams On Hold
for Young Undocumented Immigrants
|by Almudena Toral|
One of them graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics - which she has not been able to use - three years ago. She now works as a clerk in a bookstore. The other is finishing her double major in Africana Puerto Rican Latino studies and women and gender studies.
Meet Daniela, 23, and Sonia Guinansaca, 21. They have more in common than being undocumented Ecuadoreans who speak better English than Spanish. Both talk about their parents living their own failed dreams through them; both speak of sacrifice, sounding much older than their years.
The girls met through the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which has been pushing for four years to expand the opportunities of young immigrants, and were hoping for a future out of limbo as a Christmas present last year. But along with roughly 825,000 other young people that the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute estimates would have gained legal status under the DREAM Act, they face a harshly disappointing new year.
The bill - Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act - failed to pass by five votes in the Senate on December 18, 2010, after passing the House on December 8. It was the ninth version of the bill and this marked the closest it had come to passing since it was introduced in 2001. Prospects appear dim in the new conservative Congress installed recently.
About half of all foreign-born residents in the United States are female, according to the Pew Research Center, and of those, the largest proportion are between ages 20 and 45.
For Daniela, the DREAM Act meant having a career in her field, being able to work for her community creating policies and resources for immigrants and letting go of the fear that "any day we can be deported and our lives, as we know them, be completely changed". She also hoped to achieve a childhood dream: Of travelling the world and experiencing other cultures, places and languages. The first place she says she'd visit is Ecuador, where her extended family and her only grandmother are. They've not met in years.
Guinansaca had her heart set on using her bachelor's degree, teaching in a college and working in a non-profit. The DREAM Act for her means tranquility, not having to live in the shadows. And it also means belonging.
"It humanises the dehumanised childhood I grew up in because of my lack of a Social Security number," she says. "It means I can go back to Ecuador and pay my proper respects to my grandparents, who passed away about eight years ago. It means I no longer will live in limbo. I can show my full potential."
With last December's defeat in Congress and the dim prospects of the DREAM Act in the upcoming two years, "I am back in this limbo where they don't want me here," says Daniela, who was born in Quito, Ecuador, and migrated with her parents when she was 14.
The bill would have provided legal residency to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children with their parents, have lived in the country for a minimum of five years, gained a U.S. high school diploma or equivalent and have spent two years in college or military service.
Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. The percentage who go to college - somewhere between five per cent and 10 per cent - are held back by school rules against them or their inability to secure financial aid or loans.
Guinansaca and Daniela were among the lucky few because they live in New York, one of the ten states that offer in-state tuition to immigrants without papers. They also got private scholarships rewarding their high GPAs and worked on the side to pay for books and expenses.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that around two million young immigrants would have been eligible to apply for the DREAM Act if it had been passed. Of those, only slightly more than one third would likely qualify for permanent legal status.
Guinansaca, a poet, high-achieving student, activist and community organiser, who was born in Cuenca, Ecuador, and came here when she was 5, says, "We're part of one of two worlds where in one we can't survive because we don't have status and in the other because we don't have the tools to survive."
Her Spanish is poor, nowhere close to being able to operate and work in Ecuador. That is, if Guinansaca was able get a job. Unemployment in Ecuador is high and the wages, low. Culture adaptation, she says, would be another challenge; she has few memories of her native country and how things work there.
Both young women are core members of New York State Youth Leadership Council, which strives for enhanced access to education and opportunities for young immigrants. In the last few months, the push for the DREAM Act entailed a walk from New York City to Washington, D.C., last April, a hunger strike from June 1 to June 10, a die-in outside the office of New York Sen. Charles Schumer - that symbolically blocked the door to the building where his office is - over 30 rallies and over 50 workshops and conferences. Guinansaca also took part in one of the few acts of civil disobedience carried out by undocumented youth.
A victory, they both said, felt so close.
"We were really encouraged, it passed in the House and that created more expectations," Daniela recalls. "We had put so much work and effort in this... It was really tough."
But giving up is not in their nature. Both women say they will stay in the United States and continue to fight for the cause. "We, undocumented youth, need the DREAM Act; we need to have an opportunity to do our very best and use our skills and energy to accomplish our dreams and give back to our nation. Every day, the country continues to lose on valuable brainpower and hard work that we could contribute. America is part of us, and we are part of America. We are just missing a piece of paper," Daniela says.
She asserts that they will work off the books, survive and fight for the rights of others who couldn't even access college. "This is only the beginning, this was only practice," she says, about the work she and others have put into the DREAM Act so far.
Guinansaca shrugs, saying one of her favorite phrases in Spanish: "Palante, siempre palante," which means "looking forward, always looking forward."
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