By Almudena Toral
Monday, January 17, 2011
The DREAM Act came close to passage in December, lifting the hopes of young immigration activists. Here two young women who fought hard for its passage reflect on the pall that Senate rejection casts over their view of life in the new year.
(WOMENSENEWS)--One of them graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics--which she has not been able to use--three years ago. She now works as a clerk in a bookstore.
The other is finishing her double major in Africana Puerto Rican Latino studies and women and gender studies.
One of them, Sonia Guinansaca, 21, the full-time student, permits her name to be used. The other, 23, prefers only her first name--Daniela--be used.
They have more in common than being undocumented Ecuadoreans who speak better English than Spanish. In separate phone interviews recently, they both talked about their parents living their own failed dreams through them. They both speak of sacrifice and sound as if they are many decades old.
They met through the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which has been pushing to expand the opportunities of young immigrants for four years.
Both women hoped for a future out of limbo as a Christmas present this year.
But along with roughly 825,000 other young people that the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute estimates would have gained legal status under the DREAM Act, they face a harshly disappointing new year.
The bill--Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (or DREAM) Act--failed to pass by five votes in the Senate on Dec. 18 after passing the House on Dec. 8. It was the ninth version of the bill and this marked the closest it had come to passing since it was introduced in 2001. Prospects appear dim in the new conservative Congress installed this month.
About half of all foreign-born residents in the United States are female, according to the Pew Research Center, and of those, the largest proportion are between ages 20 and 45.
For Daniela, the DREAM Act meant having a career in her field, being able to work for her community creating policies and resources for immigrants and letting go of the fear that "any day we can be deported and our lives, as we know them, be completely changed." She also hoped to achieve a childhood dream: traveling the world and experiencing other cultures, places and languages. The first place she says she'd visit is Ecuador, where her extended family and her only grandmother are. They've not seen each other in years.
Guinansaca hoped to use her bachelor's degree, teach in a college and work in a nonprofit. The DREAM Act for her means tranquility, not having to live in the shadows. But it also means belonging.
"It humanizes the dehumanized childhood I grew up in because of my lack of Social Security number," she said. "It means I can go back to Ecuador and pay my proper respects to my grandparents who passed away about eight years ago. It means I no longer will live in limbo. I can show my full potential."
With December's defeat in Congress and the dim prospects for the DREAM Act in the upcoming two years, "I am back in this limbo where they don't want me here," said Daniela, who was born in Quito, Ecuador, and migrated with her parents when she was 14.
The bill would have provided legal residency to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children with their parents, have lived in the country for a minimum of five years, gained a U.S. high school diploma or equivalent and have spent two years in college or military service.
Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. The percentage who go to college--somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent--are held back by school rules against them or their inability to secure financial aid or loans.
Guinansaca and Daniela were among the lucky few because they live in New York, one of 10 states that offer in-state tuition to immigrants without papers. They also got private scholarships rewarding their high GPAs and worked on the side to pay for books and expenses.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that around 2 million young immigrants would be eligible to apply for the DREAM Act if it had been passed. Of those, only slightly more than one third would likely qualify for permanent legal status.
Guinansaca, a poet, high-achieving student, activist and community organizer, was born in Cuenca, Ecuador, and came here when she was 5.
"We're part of one of two worlds where in one we can't survive because we don't have status and in the other because we don't have the tools to survive," said Guinansaca.
Her Spanish is poor, nowhere close to being able to operate and work in Ecuador. That is, if Guinansaca was able get a job. Unemployment in Ecuador is high and the wages low. Culture adaptation, she says, would be another challenge; she has few memories of her native country and how things work there.
Both young women are core members of New York State Youth Leadership Council, which strives for enhanced access to education and opportunities for young immigrants.
In the last few months, the push for the DREAM Act entailed a walk from New York City to Washington, D.C., in April, a hunger strike from June 1 to June 10, a die-in outside the office of New York Sen. Charles Schumer--which symbolically blocked the door to the building where his office is--over 30 rallies and over 50 workshops and conferences. Guinansaca also took part in one of the few acts of civil disobedience carried out by undocumented youth.
A victory, they both said, felt so close.
"We were really encouraged, it passed in the House and that created more expectations," Daniela said. "We had put so much work and effort in this . . . It was really tough."
Both women say they will stay in the United States and continue to fight for the cause.
"We, undocumented youth, need the DREAM Act; we need to have an opportunity to do our very best and use our skills and energy to accomplish our dreams and give back to our nation. Every day, the country continues to lose on valuable brainpower and hard work that we could contribute. America is part of us, and we are part of America. We are just missing a piece of paper," Daniela said.
She asserted they will work off the books, survive and fight for the rights of others who couldn't even access college.
"This is only the beginning, this was only practice," she said about the work she and others have put into the DREAM Act so far.
Guinansaca shrugs, saying one of her favorite phrases in Spanish: "Palante, siempre palante," which means "looking forward, always looking forward."
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Almudena Toral, a La Caixa Foundation fellow, is a reporter from Spain. She holds degrees in journalism and international relations.
Sonia Guinansaca's poem "65,000":
Migration Policy Institute report:
New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYCSYL):