Thinking Long-Term “Will Mess With Your Head”

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 09, 2009 3 min read
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Last weekend, I attended a conference at Brown University about immigrant students that hosted a panel of five undocumented youths. Three of the panelists are graduate students, two at Columbia University and one at Brown. One is an undergraduate and one is a college graduate who is working in his parent’s grocery store in Brooklyn, unable to use his college degree.

A young woman from the audience noted that she was undocumented and asked the panelists for advice. She graduated from high school two years ago and is applying to colleges. “I don’t know if I’ll get in or get the money. My parents tell me I should just go back to my country,” she said. The students on the panel encouraged her to take the next step to pursue her education in this country, before making other decisions.

All of them are betting their future opportunities in this country on passage of the DREAM Act—short for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act—which is expected to be reintroduced by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, in the spring. That legislation would provide a path to legalization for students who graduate from U.S. schools and attend college for two years or join the military. (I last wrote about it here.) But, in the meantime, the panelists said, they focus on the present.

“Don’t think too far in the future,” said one of the young women, who was born in South Korea. “If you constantly think, what if [the DREAM Act] doesn’t pass, it will destroy you.”

She was speaking publicly about her undocumented status for the first time, and asked that her name not be used in print. Her graduate program in journalism ends this spring, and she’s taking the advice of a professor to write a memoir “to buy time, without wasting time,” she explained.

Piash agreed. He was born in Bangladesh and was an engineering student for two semesters at Rutgers University. Because he is undocumented, he can’t get government financial aid. He is currently attending a community college until he can scrape up enough money to return to Rutgers, from where he would like to graduate. “You can’t think long term. If I leave this country, it’s a 10-year ban [to get back in]. It will mess with your head.”

Piash has become involved in groups such as DreamActivist that are fighting for the DREAM Act. Read his story here.

The students encouraged secondary school educators to hold forums for immigrant parents in their community to talk about how undocumented students can get into college. Two of the panelists mentioned they had participated in a network facilitated by a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, for undocumented students. About 100 students have taken part. UPDATE: A blog reader sent me this New York Times article about a high school history teacher who is helping his undocumented students find ways to go to college.

One of the panelists, Tam Tran, advises educators to tell undocumented students they should continue their schooling so they are ready should the DREAM Act pass. “The government may be able to deport us, but they can’t take away your education,” she said.

Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington, mentioned at the conference that only about 5 percent of the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year go on to college in this country.

William Perez, an assistant professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, said the DREAM Act is “an important step” but at the same time “a compromise.” He said that “one argument is not to support the DREAM Act because it’s piecemeal.” He said the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform that will address the presence of undocumented people in this country more broadly.

I wonder if President Barack Obama mentioned the DREAM Act today when he spoke at the Legislative Conference of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Update: Obama talked a lot about the American dream in his speech, but not the DREAM Act. And I don’t see a mention of immigrants or immigration in the transcript.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.