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Scholar Captures Stories of Undocumented Students

With the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act sitting on Congress’ to-do list, Dr. William Perez, assistant professor of education at  Claremont Graduate University, hopes that legislative body pays close attention to the experiences of undocumented students struggling to get a higher learning.

In his book, We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream, Perez tells the tale of illegal immigration through firsthand accounts of undocumented high school and college students. Their perseverance, achievement and social consciousness, despite the negativity they face, may impress the reader. They certainly surprised the author.

“When I began, I thought the book would be more somber, and, although many students have struggled, I was surprised by how optimistic they remain and that, despite their current status, they’re able to see a better future for themselves,” says Perez. “They are high-achieving despite a future that is uncertain.”

Since the first DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, some 11 states have passed laws providing in-state tuition for undocumented students, allowing many to pursue college educations. After graduation, however, undocumented immigrants are confronted by the realization that without legal residency a professional career will elude them.

For Perez, whose family immigrated illegally to the United States from El Salvador when he was 10, the stories are too familiar. His family received amnesty in 1986 through immigration reform under the Reagan administration. Like the students in his book, Perez set his sights on becoming educated but in a field that would have an impact on new arrivals.

In the year since his book was published, Perez garners hope from signs that a new attitude toward the DREAM Act is evolving. Institutions across the country, from Harvard to Iowa State universities, have invited him to deliver lectures and teaching workshops to faculty, students and administrators regarding undocumented students.

“Clearly these schools were aware of the issue—I’m sure faculty members dealt with undocumented students regularly—but no one knew what to do about them,” Perez says. “They saw my book as a launching pad to start a discussion about what to do.”

Perez also sees the media report on undocumented students differently. While the issue of immigration reform remains muddied by politics, Perez says the media have become more sympathetic toward undocumented students. Called upon as an expert on the topic by reporters, Perez relishes the chance to correct misconceptions that persist.

“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘How can you justify giving these students in-state tuition when they’re such a financial drain on local governments?’ I’m happy to tell them that is just not true and that the overwhelming evidence, gleaned from government sources and studies and cited in my book, is that these students do not access social programs either because they’re afraid or they just don’t know about them,” he says.

Perez is most encouraged by undocumented students’ reactions. They’ve become politically active with pilgrimages to the nation’s capital, sit-ins in the offices of senators and representatives, and letter-writing campaigns, risking deportation in order to bring visibility to and gain support for the DREAM Act.

Perez says many of the students who began college when the legislation was introduced have since graduated and some have pursued postgraduate degrees while waiting for immigration reform.

“They see the DREAM Act as their best chance of moving on with their lives and putting the education that they worked so hard to complete to use,” Perez says. “These students have single-handedly reshaped the American notion of the issue.”

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