Immigrants hope for an even better DREAM

When Melissa Garcia Velez started attending Lehman College last fall, she knew her dream of becoming a social worker might he harder to obtain than her fellow classmates.

“I’m an undocumented student,” said Garcia Velez, 18 who lives in Richmond Hill, Queens.  Unless new federal legislation is passed, she will not be able to use her degree in the United States after graduation.

Garcia Velez’ mother immigrated to the U.S. first, looking for a better life and worked as a waitress, babysitter and house cleaner, “whatever she was able to get a hold of to help us back in Colombia,” said Garcia Velez, who immigrated in 2001 at the age of eight with a family friend.

The college student attended public school and learned English as a second language.

Garcia Velez is vice president and co-founder of the Dream Team, a student-run group at the college for students to come together and talk about the Dream Act, a currently defeated piece of legislation that could open up the gateway for undocumented students to become legal citizens.

The Dream Act was the central topic at the immigration conference this week at Lehman College at Lehman’s Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies.  The proposed legislation also known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a bill that would give undocumented young people who entered the United States under age 16 the opportunity to obtain legal status through two years or either military service or college.

The Dream Act did not win enough votes in 2010 to overcome a filibuster and is currently stuck in the U.S. Senate.  Still, it energized students at colleges and university campuses around the country, many of whom say they are not giving up on the legislation.

Since the fall, the Dream Team at Lehman has grown from 10 to 25 student members.  “I felt a lot of people joined because they wanted to,” said Garcia Velez.  “They are young people, they have a vision of creating change.”

New York State senator Charles Schumer is currently working on passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would tighten border security, mandate all undocumented immigrants to register with the government and create a biometric-based employer verification system.

“Schumer’s proposal, it gives a limited pathway to a small select group of people that are here,” said Alfonso Gonzalez, a political science professor at the college who emigrated from Mexico. “The Schumer plan will not address the causes of immigration.”

Gonzalez, says that despite the recent setbacks in implementing new immigration policy, change will come.  “Every year more and more Latino youth become eligible to vote,” he said during the conference.  “Those youth are going to become long term agents for change.”

Linda Green, director of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of Arizona and associate professor of anthropology said that despite its defeat, the Dream Act has succeeded in mobilizing young people.

But Green does have concerns about the bill in its current form.  She is worried that students who can’t afford college would choose to go into the military first to earn their college tuition.  “It sets migrants up as fodder for us,” she said.

Liliana Yanez, an immigration specialist who works with CUNY Law School students at the Immigration and Refugee Rights Clinic said that advocates of the measure should be conscious of those it might exclude.  Though Yanez supports the Dream Act, she hopes the terms will be re-negotiated. “The Dream Act to me seems like crumbs,” she said.

According to Yanez, minimal military enlistment for new recruits is eight years.  She’s concerned that the Dream Act would set up a “pipeline” for the military. “Whose going to be serving in the military?” she said, “a lot of people who don’t want to serve?”

Yanez also spoke in favor of repealing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded crimes, forcing mandatory detention on immigrants caught jumping turnstiles or pretty theft.

“Human rights are not just something that happens in far away places, it starts at home,” said Victoria Sanford, chairwoman of the center.  “For our community immigration is a human rights issue.”  The center bridges the school with its past – 65 years ago, the United Nations Security Council met in the U.S. for the first time inside the college’s gymnasium.  During the meeting, the council started to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Lehman College’s Dream Team formal legislation can’t come soon enough.  “We want to be considered human in the legal sense,” said Garcia Velez.  “We don’t want to be in the shadows anymore.”

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