Another SIM blog, by Evan Allen, Emerson College student
Elizabeth was ecstatic when she got into Bentley University – her first choice school. She’d graduated from high school with high honors and academic scholarships, fluent in four languages and hoping to be an interpreter for the U.N. But Elizabeth, who asked to be identified only by her first name for legal reasons, is an undocumented immigrant: her mother brought her here from Peru when she was only 11 years old. She has no social security number, no legal residency. Without that, she couldn’t get financial aid, take out school loans, or collect her scholarships – Bentley was an impossible dream.
Elizabeth ended up at a community college two hours from her house, where she paid up front in cash and spent only one semester. Now, she works 35 hours a week and takes classes two at a time at Harvard Extension School, taking periodic semesters off when she runs out of money.
“There was a time when I got really depressed,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t choose to come here… [My mom] decided for me.” Elizabeth didn’t even know that she was undocumented until she was sixteen, and she couldn’t get her license because she had no social security number. By that point, America was her home: returning to Peru, without family or friends, was not an option. As she got older, her undocumented status would shut many more doors: she cannot legally work; she can’t travel outside the country, because she couldn’t come back in. And she’s fearful of being found out: of being detained by immigration and deported to a country she doesn’t know.
“It’s like being in the shadows,” said Mario Rodas, who was 12 when his parents brought him here from Guatemala. “When you learn you’re undocumented, you have to wonder if you’ll get deported when you’re trying to get a job, when you’re trying to apply for financial aid… You feel hopeless.”
Each year, 65,000 undocumented students like Elizabeth and Mario graduate from high schools across America. Only five to ten percent will continue their education – compared to 75% of their peers. But there is a movement gaining momentum in America to get these students into schools and on track to legal citizenship – and one of the most vocal advocacy groups is the youth-led Student Immigrant Movement, or SIM, in which both Elizabeth and Mario are leaders.
SIM was founded in 2005, and today has about 75 members, mostly undocumented students, and hundreds of supporters spread across Massachusetts. They are fighting hard – staging sit-ins at lawmakers’ offices, holding rallies, travelling to Washington D.C.– to get Congress to pass legislation called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2009: the DREAM Act, for short. Introduced by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students who were brought here as young children and who have completed high school here to apply for legal citizenship and get financial aid for school.
“It’s up to the DREAM Act,” said Elizabeth, of how she could get legal citizenship. “I could get married. But I’m not gonna do that – I never wanted to do that.” Elizabeth joined SIM this past February, and has started telling her story. An important part of SIM’s political action is “coming out” – where undocumented students publicly announce their immigration status at rallies and in one-on-one settings with friends, neighbors, and lawmakers, in order to put faces to the cause.
“An undocumented person doesn’t have a face,” said Elizabeth. “The face that they put to ‘illegals’ are – they’re criminals. It’s not the correct face. I haven’t committed anything. I’m doing really good things.”
This face-to-face strategy has been effective so far. In June last year, SIM launched the 10 for 10 Campaign: an effort to get all ten Massachusetts Congressmen to support the DREAM Act. At the time, seven Congressmen were opposed. SIM members went in groups to their offices and came out, describing their lives and what the DREAM Act could do for them.
“One of the most important things that we have is we know our story,” said Isabel, an 18 year old SIM leader and undocumented student from the Dominican Republic who asked to be identified only by her first name. “We know what it’s like to be undocumented, and every morning we have to wake up and we have to face that. That’s what makes us so effective in talking to people.” By the end of July, all ten Congressmen were signed on.
DREAM also has supporters in the Senate. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in an email. “With DREAM Act kids specifically, we’re talking about hard-working, talented young people who want to contribute to the country they love but they’re denied the opportunity to attend college or serve in our military because they must remain in the shadows of a broken immigration system.”
The DREAM Act, however, is a contentious piece of legislation. SIM has teamed up with a national coalition of immigration rights groups called United We DREAM to help persuade senators and congressmen to support the bill, but it will be tough, and they’re working under time pressure. They need to get 218 supporters in the House of Representatives. They now have 117. And because they expect a Republican filibuster in the Senate if the bill makes it to the floor, they need 61 Senators to support it – with the loss of pro-DREAM Ted Kennedy’s seat to Scott Brown, who has been tight-lipped about his position on DREAM, and with the upcoming election season starting, they are working against the clock to garner support in both the House and Senate. SIM leaders worry that if they don’t get enough sponsors before the beginning of election season in the summer, they’ll have to start all over again, getting promises of support from newly elected lawmakers on a politically risky bill.
“The DREAM Act is a reward for illegal immigration,” argued Dustin Carnevale, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonpartisan lobbying organization that wants to reduce all immigration and stop illegal immigration. “It allows individuals who are here illegally to access federally subsidized education at the detriment of US students and legal residents.” While Carnevale, like most opponents of DREAM, recognizes that because these students did not choose to immigrate, they’re not at fault for their undocumented status, he contends that, “you can’t give them a free pass, because the burden still falls on the parent.”
In the face of this political uncertainty, SIM leaders remain hopeful – and defiant. “We’re gonna move it,” said Isabel. “It’s just a matter of time and pressure.”
Researcher Tom Shields, who is writing his doctoral thesis on SIM and has attended most of their public meetings for more than a year and a half, said that SIM is a courageous organization, willing to take more risks than other, professional lobbying groups. “[Paid lobbyists] don’t have the same level of ‘skin in the game,’” as SIM does, he said. “There’s a lot more at stake for them.”
Their hopes of citizenship hinge on the passage of the DREAM Act, and their lives are in a state of limbo. Isabel is lucky enough to have her college paid for by a private donation, but she doesn’t know what she’ll do when she finishes school and needs to get a job without a social security number. And being undocumented affects her in ways that still surprise her. “I bought a shirt the other day,” she said, “and I wanted to go return it. And I couldn’t return it because they were like, ‘oh, you need an ID.’ Little things like that. I got a check from my uncle for my birthday, and I went to go cash it, and they were like ‘no, you can’t cash it, you don’t have a state ID.’”
SIM joined the United We DREAM delegation to march on Washington DC on May 1st to rally for DREAM’s passage. The same day, they joined a rally in Boston Common where students – including Elizabeth – publicly told their immigration stories. Isabel is holding a fashion show benefit in May in Boston – at a recent SIM leadership meeting, she giggled about modeling a dress, but then grew serious. “Guys,” she said, quieting the thirteen other leaders’ laughter. “These are our lives.”