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Dream Act Rising

Immigrant youth find their voice in movement for the American Dream

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In April 2009, a recent UCLA grad appeared on CNN in a suit and tie to urge passage of the Dream Act. He spoke about escaping Argentina with his family just before a major economic collapse, growing up essentially American and graduating from the University of California-Los Angeles. CNN anchor Heidi Collins did not disclose his last name, but Matias Ramos was already a well known proponent of the Dream Act and this was the most public coming out yet for a young, undocumented American.

“When my parents decided to come to this country, they told me ... that we wanted to be in a place where we could work hard and be rewarded, and that is what the United States has historically been,” Ramos said on national television. “We really want the Dream Act to let us be a part of society, like we feel like we have been all our lives.”

Since that interview a year and a half ago, hundreds of undocumented students—perhaps a thousand—have gone public with their immigration statuses, whether telling a teacher or trusted friend, declaring it from a podium at a rally or speaking to elected officials and reporters about the difficulties they face after high school.

“First you feel all alone, then you feel like other people have your back,” Ramos told BW recently, as Congress headed back into the lame duck session, expected to bring the Dream Act to a vote again. Ramos said that the human side of the immigration debate was too easily ignored until undocumented youth started speaking out. “The voice of the student in asking for the Dream Act has really changed that,” he said.

At least seven versions of the Dream Act, formally the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, have been introduced to both the House and the Senate since 2001. A new version, S. 3992, introduced yesterday, made some significant changes. The Dream Act would grant provisional visas to young people who were brought to the United States as children (under 16), have lived here for five years, have or will graduate from American high schools, and who already have or plan to attend college or join the military. These students and soldiers would also have to demonstrate that they have “good moral character.” Under the new version of the bill introduced Tuesday to garner more Republican support, the provisional visa would last 10 years, rather than six, as originally proposed. If they complete two years of study or military service during that decade, the Dreamers, as they now call themselves, would be able to apply for permanent resident status and eventually citizenship.

A seven-year-old study from Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeffrey Passell estimated that 65,000 undocumented teens graduate from U.S. high schools every year. A more recent estimate from the Migration Policy Institute shows that about 2.1 million people would qualify for the conditional Dream Act visa, but that only about 825,000 would be likely to meet the requirements in the end.

Most of these Dreamers are found in states like California and Texas, with large immigrant populations. But there are Dream students in every nook and cranny of the country, even nestled in the one-horse town, potato and dairy country of Idaho’s Magic Valley.

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