Students face uncertain future after DREAM Act is rejected

January 17, 2011


Julio Calderon, 20, who would have qualified for the DREAM Act, attends Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus in Miami.

Story by Ellen Hirst, photo by Kassandra Lau/NYTSJI.

This story was reprinted with permission of The New York Times.

With each “nay” from another senator, Lorella Praeli’s fear grew. Sitting in the gallery of the U.S. Senate last month, Praeli held out hope, but quickly realized that the “yay’’ votes for the DREAM Act to get to the floor would not prevail.

“It was certainly upsetting to see that some people chose to vote on their careers and not on our lives,” Praeli said.

Praeli, 22, had traveled to Washington from Connecticut to watch the Senators vote on the bill because the outcome would directly shape her future. Praeli is a few months away from graduating from college, but she is also an illegal immigrant. The DREAM Act would have given her a path to citizenship.

Now her life, along with the lives of hundreds of thousands of other young illegal immigrants, remains in limbo after the Senate came up five votes shy of the 60 that were needed to advance the House-passed bill when all but three Republicans voted no.

The bill’s chances of passing are even more remote now that Republicans are in control of the House.

Immigrant advocacy groups believed passing the bill was going to be the easy part in the fight to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy. The legislation would have given illegal immigrants who had been brought to the country as children a way to gain legal status by attending college or joining the military for two years.

“People don’t understand. You really have to work hard at this and be responsible and all that before you gain your citizenship,” said Mark Helmke, a spokesman for Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the bill’s sponsor. “We don’t just hand it out.”

Critics of the bill say it is a form of amnesty that would encourage more illegal immigrants to enter the country expecting a DREAM Act of their own.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the bill would lead to what he described as chain migration: illegal immigrants gaining citizenship and then petitioning to get legal status for relatives.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group seeking to limit immigration, said the bill would benefit far too many people.

“If you’re going to have a DREAM Act, it has to be much narrower and there needs to be mandatory work place verification,” Beck said. “It’s the kind of thing where they need to scrap that bill and start over again.”

As many as 2.1 million illegal immigrant youths would be eligible to apply for legal status under the DREAM Act, said a July 2010 report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based organization that studies the movement of people worldwide.

Despite the challenging political odds, Durbin said he intends to push the bill in Congress this year. So does President Barack Obama.

The failure to pass the DREAM Act was disappointing to many Hispanic voters, and Obama will need their support in the 2012 election, particularly in key swing states, like Florida.

Obama told reporters at a press conference last month that he would reach out to Republicans who, he said, “in their heart of hearts know it’s the right thing to do, but they think the politics is tough for them.”

That shouldn’t be the case, Obama said, especially for children who were brought to the United States and did not know they were here illegally.

“I get letters from kids all across the country – came here when they were 5, came here when they were 8; their parents were undocumented,” Obama added. “And it is heartbreaking. They didn’t break a law – they were kids.”

Praeli was only 2 when she started to make regular trips to the United States for medical care after losing part of her right leg in a car accident in her native Peru.
She ultimately moved to Connecticut when she was 10, but didn’t know she was in the country illegally until her parents told her when she was a junior in high school planning for college. Her illegal status meant that she would not be eligible for federal financial aid.

Still, Praeli was determined to make it to college.

“It was just a question of when and where and how,’’ she said in a telephone interview.

Praeli decided on attending Quinnipiac University in Connecticut after the school gave her a substantial merit scholarship. She was also awarded $24,000 in private scholarships from independent sources.

She expects to graduate in May with bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology.

She had hoped to pursue a graduate degree in sociology, but can’t afford to pay for school on her own.

For now, she plans to immerse herself in efforts to lobby in support of the DREAM Act.

Jose Salcedo, 19, left Colombia with his mother a decade ago because of political violence there. His parents owned a café and paramilitaries threatened them with violence when his mother refused to pay a fee to keep their business running.

“They told her, ‘Well, ‘we’re going to go after your youngest son,’ ” Salcedo said. “That’s me.” So Salcedo and his mother moved to South Florida.
Salcedo never considered going to college because he said he thought he could not afford it. But after a college recruiter encouraged him, he enrolled at Miami Dade College, where his admission to the school’s honor’s college meant a one-third reduction in tuition. He will earn an associate’s degree in international relations in the spring.

Salcedo does not want to go back to Colombia because he fears he would still be targeted by paramilitaries. He remains optimistic that someday he can become an American citizen.

“Yeah, it’s going to get darker before the dawn, but I am going to wait it out,” he said during an interview at Miami Dade College.

Julio Calderon, 20, a fellow student of Salcedo’s, came to the United States when he was 15.
In 2005, he moved to South Florida, where his family began building a new life after escaping poverty in Honduras.

Calderon emerged as a leader on campus in the campaign for immigrant rights, publicly proclaiming his illegal status and helping lead the fight for the DREAM Act.

“I still have hope,” said Calderon, who will graduate in December with an associate’s degree in civil engineering. “If you stop fighting, then you lose hope. The most difficult decision you make in life is to get out of the shadows.”

Praeli said no meaningful change comes without a struggle, one she’s ready to wage.

“Part of me is very sad,” she said. “I think it was natural for us to start to imagine a different life for ourselves.’’

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