Keeping the dream alive

Students from the Young Women's Leadership School showed their support for the DREAM Act at a rally in Union Square on May 1.

Students from the Young Women's Leadership School showed their support for the DREAM Act at a rally in Union Square on May 1.

As immigrant groups, activists, and workers’ advocates rallied in Union Square in celebration of international May Day, they were joined by a group of high school students from East Harlem who had made an after-school trip to demonstrate their support for a cause that was close to home: the passage of the DREAM Act, an immigration reform measure that would allow undocumented students who graduate from high school to pursue a path towards citizenship.

A group of students from the Young Women’s Leadership School braved the afternoon showers to wave handmade signs that read, “Act now. Let us have a dream.” They were members of the Student Council for Social Justice, who rallied on behalf of fellow students at schools around the country facing a similar challenge — how to continue their education lacking legal status.

“The reason that our parents came here was to give us a better future,” said Berenice Leal, a sophomore and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who said that she was worried she wouldn’t be able to pay for college if she didn’t qualify for financial aid because of her immigration status. She also thought that colleges might be less willing to admit her if she didn’t have financial aid. “I don’t want all of my years of hard work to be wasted,” she said.

“If you are willing to do good, you should be able to contribute to society,” added Janet Ortega, a Mexican-American student.

Drew Higginbotham, an assistant principal at the school and the club’s advisor, said that every year at the school, which has a nearly 100 percent graduation rate, a handful of undocumented students graduate and are accepted to colleges but have no way to pay for it because they don’t qualify for financial aid.

The DREAM Act, an acronym that stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, has been introduced in Congress a number of times over the last eight years, including twice as a part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Acts of 2006 and 2007, but it has never been passed. It was reintroduced to both chambers of Congress in March.

The Act gives immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and who go on to receive American high school diplomas the ability to receive proper documentation in order to work or receive financial aid.

Immigrants between the ages of 12 and 30, who were brought to the country illegally before they were 16 and have graduated from high school would be granted temporary residence for six years. Those who complete two years of college or serve in the military for two years during that six-year period would be granted permanent residency. While it is estimated that over 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, far fewer go on to attend college.

Advocates of the bill say that it is the first and most logical step toward comprehensive immigration reform and hope that, under the Obama administration, it will have a better chance of becoming law.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced his support for the bill two weeks ago during Immigrant Heritage Week in New York. “The current system just isn’t working,” he said in prepared remarks. “Why shouldn’t our economy benefit from the skills these young people have obtained here in our public schools?”

For Cydney Cottman and Alisa David, two recent immigrants who attended the rally, the issue was not simply a pragmatic one. It was also about fairness.

“We’re all immigrants in America,” said David. “And we’re passionate about every type of justice,” Cottman added.

— Paul Stephens

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