Can the DREAM Act Help Undocumented Students Earn a Living?

Dream, deferred

Last month, 1,300 people from throughout the state gathered in Albany for the New York Immigration Coalition's 15th (and largest ever) annual day of action, rallying in favor of legislation that would allow undocumented college students to receive financial aid. While the federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act lingers in Congress, New York supporters are pursuing their own version of the legislation, the New York State DREAM Act, that if passed would expand the rights of undocumented students here.

But even as activists and some elected officials fight for a state DREAM Act, they acknowledge that it comes with a catch. Only a federal law can give undocumented students green cards after graduation, permitting them to legally work in their chosen professions. Until that happens, warn undocumented youth and citizens alike, a state bill alone threatens to leave New York with hundreds of highly educated maids, factory workers, cashiers, and manual laborers—the only jobs available to non-naturalized immigrants, degree or no degree.

"The New York Dream Act is sort of like a Band-Aid," says Daniela Alulema, a board member at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which was founded by undocumented students in 2007 to press for immigration reform. "Not small, but a temporary Band-Aid for this bigger problem."

DREAM Act protests have included sit-ins at Congressional offices.
Larry Marano
DREAM Act protests have included sit-ins at Congressional offices.
Alulema: New York bill is a “Band-Aid.”
Alulema: New York bill is a “Band-Aid.”

Both bills would affect only those who arrived here as children and who attend colleges with no clear path to U.S. citizenship once they graduate. NYSYLC reports that CUNY has roughly 4,000 to 4,500 undocumented undergraduates enrolled at their schools.

One such recent graduate is Anayely Gomez. At the age of three, Gomez was brought by her parents from their home in Mexico City for what they hoped would be a new life of greater economic opportunity and stability in America. She remembers little of crossing the border—fragmented images like the back of a gardening truck, her hair caught in the bushes piled on top of her head, her mother's voice warning her to stop crying—yet it is the moment that has come to define much of her adult life.

After two decades of living in Sunset Park, Gomez graduated from Brooklyn College last spring with a degree in bilingual education (and a 3.8 GPA). Yet she is working for minimum wage at a local factory because no school will hire her without a green card.

"Even though I might be smarter or have better skills or whatever, you're always left with minimum-wage jobs that take advantage of you," says 24-year-old Gomez, who is now an activist with the NYSYLC. "It's very upsetting, and I do get angry, but that's why I started doing activism, so we can make a better life for undocumented youth."

Growing up in Brooklyn, Gomez attended P.S. 314, I.S. 227, and Fort Hamilton High School, all thanks to the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which made it unconstitutional for states to deny illegal-immigrant children funding for K–12 schooling. But when Gomez saw her friends go off to college and decided she, too, wanted a chance at a higher education, help from the state's Tuition Assistance Program proved to be impossible without a Social Security number.

In order to pay for school—two years at Kingsborough Community College for her associate's degree, then Brooklyn College for her bachelor's—Gomez took a job cleaning a day care center for $5 an hour, paid in cash under the table. Eventually, city inspections led her employer to ask her to be fingerprinted, and Gomez quit, feeling it was too risky given her legal status. Luckily, she had put aside enough money to finish her degree while she searched for a new job.

The New York DREAM Act would address such issues by making TAP available to all students who graduated with a high school diploma or GED, came to America before their 18th birthday, and have been in the country for more than two years. What it won't do is give them legal status, regardless of the circumstances surrounding how they came to be here, since it is unconstitutional for a state to grant U.S. citizenship. Gomez says the majority of the undocumented students she knows were, like her, brought to this country by their parents through no fault of their own.

"We don't use the word 'illegal' to define ourselves," she explains. "We feel like 'illegal' is an action. We didn't do anything. We were brought here. We're undocumented. We just don't have the nine-digit number to do what everybody else does."

The ways for Gomez to obtain that Social Security number are extremely limited. One option would be for her 19-year-old sister, who was born in New York and is an American citizen, to petition for her once she turns 21. Depending on how long applicants have been living in the U.S. without documentation, however, the government may impose a ban on them, forcing them to go through the procedure from their home country.

"It's fully based on what country you're from," says Katherine Tichacek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's one thing to qualify, but then [a visa] has to be available, and there's only x-number available per year." The process, she says, is "basically like waiting in line."

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