The commencement ceremony on this hot Washington, D.C., afternoon was an emotional one for many of the students gathered. They weren’t being recognized for years of hard work to achieve their dreams. It was recognition of the dreams denied to them — undocumented immigrants who could not attend college — that elicited tears.
Gathered for a mock graduation ceremony, nearly 500 immigrant students and their supporters descended on the nation’s capital earlier this week to bring attention to the plight of undocumented students and rally for passage of the DREAM Act.
Sponsored by the United We DREAM Coalition, the ceremony was part of a growing campaign in which students nationwide participated in local commencement exercises to garner support for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for many undocumented students brought to the country by their parents.
“It wasn’t until you applied for your first driver’s license … [or] needed a social security number to apply for college that the impact of your future dawned on you,” said Josh Bernstein, the commencement speaker and director of Immigration at Services Employees International Union.
“Your dream turned into a nightmare,” he said.
The ceremony recognized the struggles and achievements of three undocumented students who received awards for leadership, courage and spirit.
Benita Veliz, a St. Mary’s University honors graduate from San Antonio, Texas, received a leadership award for her activism and personal accomplishments. Born in Mexico, Veliz came to the United States at the age of 8 when her parents entered on tourists visas and never left.
“It was not until high school did I realize the repercussions of my status,” Veliz said, while choking on tears.
In January 2009, a police officer stopped Veliz for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. The officer arrested her after discovering she was an undocumented immigrant.
Veliz, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class and attended St. Mary’s on a full scholarship, has received considerable media attention in the wake of receiving a deportation order. She was the subject of a cover story in her hometown’s alternative weekly, Scene, and in an article published by The New York Times.
American high schools graduate approximately 65,000 immigrant students every year, according to a study by The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group in Washington, D.C. The study also estimates that only about 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college compared to 75 percent of their peers.
In March, senators reintroduced the DREAM Act legislation, which has languished in Congress since 2001, but the proposal remains in limbo despite support from President Barack Obama and several committee chairs in the House and Senate.
The legislation would restore states’ rights to determine residency requirements for in-state tuition for undocumented students, and it would also help such students obtain legal status on a conditional basis and eventually citizenship status.
Public college and universities are inconsistent in their treatment of undocumented students, policymakers say. While some schools deny these students admission, some institutions admit these students and charge out-of-state tuition rates. This is problematic because most cannot afford such rates and usually have to work full time through college.
Less than 2 percent of this year’s high school graduating class is composed of undocumented students, and only a fraction will attend college even if they are able to pay tuition, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
Some states allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition if they attended and graduated from high school in the state. New Mexico and Texas are the only two states that allow undocumented students to compete for financial aid.
In order to obtain legal status, students would be required to have entered the United States before the age of 16 and have accepted admission into an institution of higher learning, have received a high school diploma or GED certificate at the time of application for relief, or have served in the Armed Forces for at least two years. Students must also have lived in United States for at least five years preceding the legislation’s effective date and have no criminal record.
Marvin Esquivel, recreational services director for Identity, a youth empowerment group founded in 1998 to serve Hispanic youth in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, brought about 25 students to the mock graduation ceremony.
Esquivel, who works with several undocumented students, said he has witnessed first hand the struggles of students who graduate high school and are left with uncertainty about their future.
“The first thing they ask us after high school graduation is, ‘What’s next?’” he said.
Jerry Canete, 16, from Staten Island, N.Y., was one of the participants. He traveled with a group of students representing an anti-violence youth group called Eye Openers.
Canete said he came to especially show support for his older sister, who has been unable to attend college because of her status as an undocumented student.
“We heard about the DREAM Act and we wanted to support it. It affects us,” he said. “Some people are smart, they have talent, but they can’t go to college.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com