Living the DREAM: Undocumented Youth Build Lives in America

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They can't open bank accounts, apply for drivers licenses, or go to public universities. But more and more of these young people are "coming out" and finding ways to thrive.  

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Connecticut Students for a DREAM

When he reaches for his earliest memories, Nico Lopez recalls clenching his small fists around his seat belt buckle and straining to listen to the smiling flight attendant's directions for take-off. As he watched Guatemala City disappear beneath him, he pulled his feet onto the seat, wrapped his arms around his knees, and quietly began to cry. It was 2001, and Nico was seven years old.

Now a tall, quietly confident young man with dark hair and green eyes, Nico will soon graduate with honors from a public high school in Stamford, Connecticut. Despite having grown up in a neighborhood where gunfire is likened to the doorbell ringing -- you hear it all the time and don't really think much of it -- he is the leader of the student government, often the only non-white member of his AP classes, and, in his spare time, an English tutor for recent immigrants.

You know how the rest of the American dream story is supposed to go: Nico receives a merit-based scholarship to college and finds a job that helps him support his mother, who has worked as a housekeeper for the past 17 years. He gets married, has second-generation kids, and serves as a shining example of how any American can succeed if he tries hard enough.

Except Nico isn't technically American. He overstayed his tourist visa as a seven-year-old and is now one of over 2 million immigrant youth who entered the United States as minors and now live here illegally. Federal law prohibits Nico from going to college at a public university, while, somewhat counterintuitively, Connecticut state law gives Nico access to in-state tuition though not financial aid.

As a result, Nico's choices lie along a cruel spectrum. On one end, he could adopt the tricks of the trade of living as an undocumented person in America: he could find a low-paying job that pays cash under the table, have a friend at the DMV make a license for him, go to doctors who don't require social security numbers or insurance cards, and sweet-talk bank tellers into opening accounts. Like the vast majority of undocumented residents, Nico could squeeze into America's shadowy corners, away from the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On the other end, Nico could join the small but quickly growing group of students who are "coming out" as undocumented. Among the first to emerge was Lorella Praeli, a confident, articulate young woman who graduated summa cum laude from Quinnipiac University last year. In November of 2010, Lorella decided that if she, as a high achiever with a tight circle of family and friends, didn't come out, she didn't know who would. On a Thursday afternoon, she told journalists and cameramen the story of how she immigrated to the U.S. and made her way through college, and proceeded to organize Connecticut's first "coming out" rally three months later.

Coming out is a risky move: You're proclaiming to the world that you're breaking a federal law, and at any moment, you could be deported. But paradoxically, coming out can be a protective mechanism: You become part of an increasingly vocal group that will make it very well known if you're at risk of deportation.

Now, over a year after the first rally, a group of undocumented youth has formed Connecticut Students for a DREAM (informally known as C4D), the state's first and only non-profit advocating for their rights. The name alludes to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act proposed in 2001 to put students like Nico on a pathway to college and citizenship. (The act has failed by a handful of votes on four occasions, and in a re-election year with a Republican-dominated congress, it isn't expected to pass any time soon.)

It's not exactly easy for a young organization to advocate for individuals who make a point of concealing their identities, particularly when only a small proportion of C4D members themselves are out to the general public. But in the past months, the organization successfully lobbied for in-state tuition and helped terminate the deportation proceedings of a C4D member. And through a series of college workshops and open meetings, C4D is slowly building awareness among the state's 15,000 undocumented students.

***

It's 5:30 pm, and about 30 people, mostly mothers and their teenage daughters, sit in mismatched folding chairs at the Spanish Community of Wallingford, chatting in a combination of Spanish and English as they wait for a C4D college prep workshop to start. A PowerPoint is projected onto a whiteboard, and as four speakers walk to the front of the room, the crowd quiets. Lorella is the first to speak.

"How many of you are in high school?" About 10 people raise their hands.

"How many want to go to college?" About 15.

"How many of you have been told that you can't go to college because of your status?" Nearly everyone.

"Well, the four of us are undocumented -- we're either in college or just graduated. We call ourselves DREAMers.

"We're told many things because we're undocumented. 'You can't go to college, you can't work, you can't drive. You don't belong. You should go back to where you came from.' Well," she grins at the three other speakers, "obviously, that's not the case."

The speakers explain statistics they've reviewed many times before, pausing once in a while to repeat themselves in Spanish: Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. Of these 65,000, only five to ten percent enroll in college. One percent, or 650 students each year, graduates from college.

Lorella goes on to explain that the most recent version of the DREAM Act proposed a "pathway to citizenship" for immigrants who meet five qualifications: they arrived to the U.S. on or before their 15th birthday, have lived in the country for at least five consecutive years, have graduated high school or obtained a GED, have "good moral character" (read: no criminal record), and are 29 or younger on the date of enactment. These students would qualify for a six-year non-immigrant status, during which they would be required to complete two years in college or the military. After the six years, they would be able to apply for green cards.

Two thirds of the audience members have heard of the DREAM Act, but when Lorella asks how many have heard of the in-state tuition legislation, only one person raises his hand. Lorella looks dismayed. "That's why we're here," she says with a hesitant smile.

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Julia Lurie is a writer living in New York City.

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