Undocumented 'Dreamers' in College Welcome Immigration Shift

Matt McLoone for The Chronicle

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who, as a child, arrived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, speaks out in support of President Obama's decision to change the way in which U.S. immigration law is enforced, to the benefit of people like him.
July 02, 2012

Anayely Gomez has been in the United States for so long that her only memory of Mexico is of leaving.

At 3 years old, Ms. Gomez huddled with her mother in the bed of a pickup truck crossing the border. She kept asking where they were going, though her mother urged her to be quiet.

They made part of the journey on foot, periodically ducking into prickly bushes for cover. A thorn pierced her left shoulder and lodged there; the sliver is still visible beneath the skin almost 21 years later. "It doesn't hurt anymore," Ms. Gomez says. "It's just a part of me now."

Their journey ended in New York City, where her father found work in factories and warehouses. This spring, Ms. Gomez also took a job at a factory—though, unlike her father, she has a college diploma.

Ms. Gomez, 24, is part of the generation of so-called "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children—and who stand to benefit from President Obama's decision last month to change how U.S. immigration law is enforced. Under the new policy, people who are no more than 30 years old and who were brought to the United States by their parents before the age of 16 could receive renewable, two-year deferments on any action that could lead to deportation and apply for a work permit.

Undocumented students say they are anxious to see how the policy will be put into effect—they have been disappointed by the Obama administration before. But they think it is a big step in the right direction.

Students who were brought to the U.S. illegally confront significant barriers to obtaining college degrees. And with no authorization to work, after they graduate they are often confined to the same kinds of low-wage jobs as their parents. Yet many pursue college just the same, explaining that their education is something no one can take away from them—even if they cannot always put it to good use.

"I think the fact that the government has not allowed us to fulfill our potential is very detrimental to our country," says Sofia Campos, an undocumented student who graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles on the day of Mr. Obama's announcement. "My friends want to be doctors, teachers—all these beautiful things that have not been allowed to grow. We have been pushing down these dreams when we should be telling our youth that they can [succeed]."

To qualify for the new exemption, a person must have lived in the United States for at least five years, have no record of committing a serious crime, and either have earned high school diploma or G.E.D. or be still in school. Those who have served in the armed forces would also be eligible.

Though it falls far short of the long-discussed Dream Act—from which the "dreamer" generation gets its name­—the president's announcement won praise from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which noted that more than 800,000 young immigrants stand to benefit from it. Many are high-school and college students, as well as recent graduates.

Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, is hopeful that the new policy will finally open doors for young people who have been unable to make the most of their education and skills. He has spent much of his career studying how undocumented children grow up.

His scholarship reveals that "learning to be illegal" takes a significant toll—dozens of the undocumented youth he has interviewed grapple with chronic headaches, ulcers, sleeping problems, and difficulty getting out of bed. Something as simple as driving a car or grabbing a drink with co-workers is complicated by the lack of official identification. Many dreamers fear deportation, even if they have no criminal records.

Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid. In all but 12 states, they pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges. And of 50 college graduates Mr. Gonzales interviewed, none were on a career track that matched their educational preparation.

"Many really internalize ideals of meritocracy," he says. "At each step of the way, their hard work has been validated, but then they find themselves out of school. They look around and say, 'I have levels of education that surpass those of my parents, I speak English better than my parents, I should be doing something better.'"

The United We Dream network, a large coalition of undocumented youth, issued a statement hailing the new policy "as a momentous act of courage and a profoundly important step toward justice for immigrant youth." It noted that undocumented youth have been pushing Obama to stop their deportations since 2010.

Critics, however, questioned the president's authority to take such a step and voiced concerns about the policy's long-term implications.

"Given the premise under which this is done, we are going to see a huge influx of people who bring their kids here," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This is only going to exacerbate the problem."

'It Gave Me Hope Again'

When Ms. Gomez graduated from Brooklyn College with a 3.8 GPA this past December, employers in finance and education encouraged her to send them her résumé. She ended up in the factory because, unlike for posts in those fields, she did not have to show a work permit to land the job.

With a diploma in hand, she was making minimum wage, earning even less than she did in college. When she first heard Mr. Obama's announcement, she wrote it off as a political move that would have little meaning for her. But as she learned more, she grew cautiously optimistic.

"I was like, 'Wow, maybe I can finally get a job and help my parents out,'" she says. "It gave me hope again."

Still, undocumented students say they will measure the success of Mr. Obama's immigration policy by how much deportations actually drop.

Mr. Obama issued a memo last summer that encouraged federal immigration agents and prosecutors to make deporting criminals and others who threatened national security their priority. Then, in November, officials started reviewing all cases pending in immigration courts, aiming to close the cases of immigrants with clean records and close family in the United States. Fewer than 2 percent of the 288,361 cases reviewed by immigration prosecutors as of May 29 had been closed, according to documents released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last October, David A. Zambrano, 22, was pulled over in Georgia for speeding. As an undocumented immigrant, he had no driver's license. He was arrested and spent two months in a county jail and a detention center in Georgia, hours from his home in Daytona Beach, Fla. He says he was forced to drop out of courses in statistics and physical science that he had already enrolled in and paid for at Daytona State College.

Though he had no criminal record, he was denied bond. He tried to sleep as much as possible to make the time pass more quickly. When sleep eluded him, he thought about what life would be like if he were sent back to Venezuela, the country he left at 13.

"I think of myself as an American," he says. "This is what I know, this is my country. For me to be sent back, it would have been catastrophic."

Even before he was detained, Mr. Zambrano had felt like his life was stalled. Though he had earned an associate degree in culinary management, he kept waiting tables because not having a work permit kept him from landing better jobs. He had dreamed of being a doctor or lawyer as a child, but today his visions of the future are hazy. "I feel like my life is on hold," he says. "I can't move forward. I can just do what I'm doing now. When you're undocumented, you feel like you can't make decisions in your own life."

As undocumented students navigate the higher-education landscape, they become experts in rules and regulations, often possessing a knowledge that surpasses that of campus administrators, Mr. Gonzales notes. After his arrest, Mr. Zambrano learned of the memo Mr. Obama had issued that summer. At his hearing, he asked for prosecutorial discretion.

"The judge smiled and asked how I knew about the memo," he says.

When he saw her smile, he started to sense he would be released. But he couldn't help but feel that he shouldn't have had to ask.

Staying the Course in College

After working hard and getting good grades in high school, college seemed like a logical next step for Jaqueline Cinto. She did not realize how hard it would be until she was a high-school senior, she says. Friends who had been honors students abandoned plans to continue their educations and instead accepted low-wage jobs.

Encouraged by her family, Ms. Cinto stayed the course, working more than 40 hours a week to pay her way through college while taking a full load of classes. She now holds a master's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages and a bachelor's degree in bilingual childhood education, both from the City University of New York. But she is still babysitting and tutoring to support herself, though she has been offered several teaching positions.

When she questioned whether she would be able to put her degrees to use, activism gave her a sense of agency. She spends dozens of hours each week campaigning for the New York State Dream Act and counseling other undocumented youth about their educational opportunities.

"To feel that I am doing something to change that future gives me more energy and hope that someday things will change, hopefully soon," says Ms. Cinto, 26.

Though some question their decisions to pursue higher education, undocumented students continue to enter college—and in many cases, graduate school—because it gives them a sense of hope while they wait for a path to citizenship, Mr. Gonzales says.

"I've heard a lot of students ask other students, 'If something like the Dream Act were to pass, where would you rather be? Educated and ready to make the most of it, or out of school and not eligible?'" he says.

Cesar Vargas, 28, says he encouraged friends to join him in supporting the Dream Act, but most of the lobbying he did was informal. After receiving a law degree from CUNY last year, he decided to professionalize his efforts. With three other partners, two of whom are also undocumented, he founded DRM Capitol Group, a firm that lobbies for the Dream Act.

Mr. Gonzales says he has seen a growing number of undocumented graduates start their own companies in recent years.

At UCLA, a Support Group

Ms. Campos, the woman who graduated from UCLA the day of Mr. Obama's announcement, says her first memory of life in the United States is a trip to Disneyland. Throughout her childhood, she felt like any other American girl, though she came from Peru at age 6.

She didn't sense that anything was different until she asked her mother for her Social Security number while filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The look in her mother's eyes suggested that she was hiding something. Finally her mother revealed that she was undocumented.

For a while, Ms. Campos, too, was quiet about her immigration status. She began her freshman year at UCLA as planned, paying in-state tuition, but without a driver's license she was forced to commute two hours by bus each way.

She started to feel less alone when she was contacted by a support group for undocumented students on campus. By the end of her first year, she spoke about her experiences for the first time at a rally of about 200 people. For Ms. Campos and other undocumented students, going public has been a source of empowerment.

"There's no marker to show that you're undocumented," she says. "If you don't share, no one can help. Sharing our story has been a crucial way of growing our power."

Ms. Campos heard about Mr. Obama's new immigration policy as she was decorating her cap the morning of her graduation.

Though Ms. Campos called the news a "great graduation present," she did not trust it until she saw it in writing. She plans to push hard with other undocumented students in the coming weeks to ensure that the policy is implemented fairly. And even when its provisions take effect, she feels it will be a far cry from the comprehensive reform that is needed to make a difference for her parents and other members of the generation that made the decision to come.

Even so, a graduation event for undocumented youth that she attended that afternoon was crawling with reporters seeking students' opinions on the news. And though students' minds were racing, she says, they were pondering different questions than they had worried about before. "For once, the question wasn't, 'What now?'" Ms. Campos said. "It was, 'What's next?'"