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For the DREAMers

I know that our community at Spanglishbaby is a diverse bunch, and that we come from a variety of personal and political perspectives, so I’m a little nervous about writing a post about politics, but I’d like to share with you some of my reflections on the recent passage of AB 130, the California DREAM Act:

The California DREAM Act allows undocumented students to receive financial aid, if financially eligible, from private and public sources. Under AB540, these students were already allowed to pay in-state tuition, instead of out-of-state tuition, but this makes it possible for them to afford their college fees, which even at state colleges is over $6,000 (cost of attendance, including rent, books, etc. is about $16,000).

During this terrible recession, the prospect of allowing “aliens” to receive taxpayer monies is alarming to many people, even though there are compelling economic arguments in favor of allowing these students–who have grown up here and will stay here as professionals–to complete their educations. But I am no economist. I’m just a teacher and an immigrant.

My family immigrated to this country when I was 11 months old. We were leaving El Salvador in 1980, just as the civil war there became a real threat even to upper-class professional families like mine. My parents packed up their six kids into a brown Chevy van, after selling or giving away a lifetime’s worth of possessions, and we drove to the U.S. We were lucky. We were leaving behind a life of comfort for one of struggle, but a working-class struggle. We always had food to eat, although sometimes our electricity got shut off. In California, that was not such a big deal. We were lucky because my mother had served as a secretary in the U.S. Consulate for twenty years and was able to secure permanent residencies for all of us without a problem. This “perk” of her work changed all of our lives, and may have even saved them.

So I was never undocumented. As my baby picture on my first green card proved, I was always a legal permanent resident of this country. Until, finally, thirty years later, I became a citizen. Even though I grew up here, en los estados, it was bittersweet for me to lose my Salvadoran citizenship. It was a connection to my history, mi familia. I was able to postpone that change for so long because as a legal immigrant and permanent resident, I wasn’t much different from a citizen: I could attend school, receive government benefits, and most importantly for me, receive financial aid. My family could never have afforded my private university education without massive amounts of financial aid. Even though I worked several jobs and earned good grades, it was that aid which made it possible for me to earn two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree all by the time I was 24. I knew how much it meant to my family for me to graduate college. I was the first woman in my family to do so, though several have now followed in my footsteps. I then became a community college professor and have worked as a part of California’s Puente Project to help underrepresented students transfer to universities and earn their university degrees.

In other words, I’m trying to “pay it forward.”

I’ve been doing this work for nearly a decade and over that time I have worked with countless immigrant students from all over the world, not just Latin America. Each student has his or her own story, and I have been touched by many. It is these undocumented students whom I have had the honor of teaching that have impacted me the most. Every single undocumented student, probably 50 that identified themselves to me (not always a safe thing to do), has been hardworking, intelligent, dedicated, and passionate about his or her education and serving the community. I’m not kidding. Tienen ganas!

I think the reason that my AB540 students/DREAMers are so amazing is that for years they have known that no matter what they did, whether they graduated or not, whether they poured their hearts into school or dropped out, they could not live their dreams–to work legally in the only country they know as home. This means that undocumented college students are going to school and working hard not because there is a financial reward for them, or even security for their families, but in spite of the fact that there isn’t. DREAMers are slaving over their studies because they want to better themselves, to learn, to become better equipped to serve their communities, fully aware that they may never make a living wage, that they may always live in fear of deportation to a country they have no memories of. It’s amazing. It takes a special kind of person not to just give up and drop out in that situation. I went to school knowing it would “pay off,” that I would be able to pursue the career of my choice. Undocumented students have no such gaurantee, despite the fact that they have earned the opportunity just as much as I have.

One of the greatest tragic ironies of the DREAMers predicament is that because they immigrated here as children (the act only applies to those who immigrated as children), many of them grew up believing they were “American” and did not realize they did not have papers until it came time to apply for college. This is the only country they know. This is the country they love. There is often, literally, nowhere else for them to go, and yet, for so long, they have been told to “go home.”

I could tell you about so many students, some who have gone on to medical school (imagine working those insane hours with no hope of practicing medicine legally!), law school, nursing school, and every other type of school and profession. They have done it and they have paid for it by working mutliple jobs, by cobbling together rare scholarships, by going into credit card debt, and by the sacrifice of their parents–basically, the same as “American” students, with the major difference that many of these students would have been able to rely on financial aid to help with some of that huge cost.

These students inspire their peers. I have heard (U.S. born) students, at a graduation dinner, tell of an undocumented friend who would tell them, when they thought of dropping out, “Are you crazy? You have this amazing opportunity. I don’t have the opportunities you do, and I’m still here! You can’t drop out.” And because this student was so passionate about his learning, he kept his friends in school. Undocumented students do not hurt their legal peers.

These students inspire me. They don’t take their education for granted–they fight for it! They don’t want a handout–they want a chance to work hard. They were never asking for money to go on vacation. They wanted, and now will get, tuition money so that they can work hard–it’s an opportunity, not a gift. And if experience tells me anything, it’s that these students will continue to take any opportunity that comes their way and do amazing things with it. So many of them have told me they are trying to stay in school long enough for the world to change, so that they can legally practice their professions. I think it’s happening. I think they have changed our world a little bit, with a lot more to come.

Recently, on our campus, our undocumented students held a “coming out of the shadows” day. They told their stories in front of a public audience in order to put their faces to the term “undocumented.” They knew that if people would just get to know them, their classmates, their students, their friends, they would realize that no one could be less “alien.”

I hope that my girls will read about this in their history books one day and be proud of our state for doing right by its people and for being the “land of opportunity” that so many of our families came in search of.

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