The Vulnerable Young People Denied Access to What We Call the American Dream

As he promised during the campaign, President Donald Trump is cracking down on immigration—pledging to deport anyone who is caught without papers and creating chaos and injustice with an outrageous executive order late last week that suspends entry for all refugees for 120 days, entirely bans refugees from Syria and for 90 days bars immigrants from seven Muslim countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

But so far, at least, Trump has done nothing about DACA.  DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was established by President Barack Obama’s executive order to protect adolescents and young adults—brought here by their parents when they were small children—from deportation and to allow these young adults to obtain work permits.  The protection established by President Obama under DACA is for two years and is renewable.

These young people call themselves Dreamers, named for a bill introduced in Congress in 2001 by Senator Dick Durbin, a bill that has never been passed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Bill—the DREAM Act.  President Obama established DACA because Congress had never acted on the broader bill that would have expanded access to higher education by guaranteeing in-state tuition and access to federal financial aid and to scholarships at state colleges and universities.

In Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Dale Russakoff published an extraordinary profile of one Dreamer, a young woman named Indira, who left Mexico with her parents when she was six years old.  Her parents, both medical doctors in Mexico but working in menial jobs in the U.S. ever since, brought their family to the United States on an immigrant visa and never returned to a Mexican city where relatives had been killed by violence.  Indira is now enrolled in college, thanks to a privately funded foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers.

Let me explain here that I have really never been able to follow the thinking of those who have opposed the DREAM Act. I guess they believe that educational opportunity and the American Dream are a zero sum game?  That if your kid gets a good education, she might edge mine out of entrance to a particular college or out of a job later in life?  That children are responsible for the so called sins of their fathers?  How could any caring adult possibly want children to have to grow up living in the shadows, and if the children and their families manage to get along, how could anyone want the children to be denied the right to in-state college tuition or the right to qualify for a Pell Grant or college loan?  Opposing the Dream Act has always seemed to me a particularly punitive and cruel definition of fairness.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, undocumented immigrant children do have a right to a K-12 education, despite their problems accessing colleges and universities. Russakoff explains that in their 1982 decision in the case of Plyler v. Doe, the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right for undocumented immigrant children to a K-12 public education.  Russakoff quotes the majority decision written by Justice William Brennan: “Already disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability and undeniable racial prejudices, these children, without an education, will become permanently locked into the lowest socioeconomic class.”  In a concurring opinion, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The classification at issue deprives a group of children of the opportunity for education afforded all other children simply because they have been assigned a legal status due to a violation of law by their parents.”

Russakoff profiles Indira, whose family resides in the state of Georgia: “She was determined to go to college and medical school and fulfill her parents’ interrupted dream. In her junior year (of high school), Indira began researching college options… She was distressed to discover that Georgia barred undocumented immigrants from attending its top public universities and charged them out-of-state tuition at all others—triple the rate for citizen residents. She then turned to researching financial aid and learned that Congress barred her from accessing federal Pell grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study jobs—the most common forms of assistance for low-income students… At a college fair attended by representatives of numerous Georgia colleges, she asked admissions officers what kind of help was available for undocumented students. No one had any to offer her. She switched her focus to private colleges and was admitted to Atlanta’s Agnes Scott, which she says awarded her $20,000 annually in financial aid, less than half of what she needed.”

Her help came from TheDream.US, a private foundation that offers scholarships to Dreamers at Delaware State University. Russakoff follows Indira to college and profiles as well several of her classmate Dreamers who managed to discover this program, several of them learning about the help it could offer only after a number of years of manual work after high school graduation.  Russakoff estimates there are 2.1 million Dreamers, “who have grown up as Americans in almost every way except for their passports.”  Educated in public schools, these children are likely not able to remember much about life in their nations of origin. They may not even speak any language other than English.

President Trump’s threat to eliminate DACA during the campaign has terrified Dreamers all over the country.  For the students in Delaware, there was some reassurance: “A lifeline of sorts arrived the week after the election, when the students received letters from TheDream.US, Governor (Jack) Markel and the president of D.S.U., pledging to stand behind their scholarships no matter what became of DACA.”  Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US, “lined up attorneys to represent them if anyone challenged their right to be in school.”

So far, President Donald Trump has taken no action to eliminate DACA.  Please read Russakoff’s profile of Indira and her Delaware State University Dreamer classmates to become more informed about the extraordinary challenges faced by the young people who are labeled “illegal” despite their exemplary academic records and their efforts to pursue what we call, perhaps erroneously, the American Dream.

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