Can the DREAM Act Help Undocumented Students Earn a Living?


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.”

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.”

And for those like Gomez who come from Mexico, it’s certain to be a long line at that. She has been told the process could take decades.

In 2010, the federal DREAM Act was blocked by a 56-43 Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. Reintroduced last spring, it would allow undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children to jump the line to citizenship, either by earning a college degree or serving in the military for two years.

Critics of the federal bill believe it would reward and encourage illegal behavior, worsen the country’s immigration woes, and be a drain on state- and federal-funded financial-aid programs.

“We view [the DREAM Act] as an amnesty, and we’re opposed to rewarding illegal behavior through amnesty,” says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “The problem is that we have a finite amount of money for public education. At the higher-education level, it’s being cut dramatically in almost every state.”

Supporters, however, believe the DREAM Act could actually strengthen the U.S. economy: Once armed with a college degree and a green card, these students could go on to earn more money (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, college grads earn $1 million more over their lifetime than those with just a high school degree), spend more money, and pay higher taxes.

Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, a Democrat and the prime Assembly sponsor of the New York DREAM Act, says that once enough undocumented students are educated, it only makes sense to allow them to work and contribute to society.

The first Dominican-born elected official in the United States, Linares immigrated to America at the age of 15 not knowing a word of English. He was able to put himself through City College by driving a taxi, and he later earned his doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University. His parents were in this country undocumented for two years and worked in the garment industry on the Lower East Side after overstaying their visas until they were finally granted green cards.

The NYSYLC hopes that the New York DREAM Act will be passed in Albany this June, but first, public support from Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Republican leaders is needed. So far, Cuomo has stayed quiet. The governor’s office failed to return phone calls requesting comment on the legislation.

Supporters argue that even without the federal bill, the New York DREAM Act would give undocumented youth a taste of something they have been desperate for: a sense of empowerment and dignity. Citizenship can be granted or denied; a visa can be issued and then expire; but once paid for, an education is lasting.

“What we’re hearing from kids is, ‘You can’t take my education away from me, you can’t take my dignity away from me, you can’t take my drive,” notes Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Although Gomez still works at a factory for minimum wage, her employer recently recognized her skills and gave her a desk job entering data. It’s a long way from her dream of one day teaching, but it’s a position she’s willing to accept given the current laws.

“I’ve thought about going to Canada or Spain or places like that, but at the end of the day, this is my home, this is where I’ve grown up all my life,” Gomez says. “There is work to be done in the United States, and we as undocumented youth are taking that approach to change immigration laws.”