Tania Mattos immigrated to the United States from Bolivia when she was four years old, but it wasn’t until she applied for a driver’s license that she experienced the full import of her tenuous hold on America.
Like thousands of people who entered the country at a young age because their parents risked illegal status for a better life, Mattos could not obtain a driver’s license, state identification card, Social Security number or any level of federal health coverage.
To the high school honors student’s even greater distress, she couldn’t get student loans for college—even though she had been accepted.
The struggles of Mattos and others like her for a piece of the American Dream was debated on Oct. 11 at Fordham University in a conference sponsored by the Feerick Center for Social Justice and the Center for International Policy Studies.
Federal “Dream Act” legislation to determine eligibility for children of illegal immigrants who grew up on American soil has failed repeatedly in Congress. Since then, about 13 states have passed some form of the proposal.
The state-level bills, such as one that was ratified on Oct. 8 in California, offer educational financial support to undocumented immigrant students and other benefits.
Sen. Bill Perkins, the lead sponsor of New York’s Dream Act bill, S-4179, told the audience of 100 attendees that his plan lacks the 32 votes needed to pass. When Perkins introduced the bill, he said, a Republican senator dubbed it the “Terrorist Opportunity Act.”
“I tell you that to give you a sense of the climate we are in—one of anti-immigrant sentiment,” said Perkins, who represents Harlem and the surrounding area. “Yet this bill represents the best of America, which is inclusion. How many Native Americans are in this room? My point is that all of us come from someplace and by someone’s point of view were once ‘illegal,’” he said.
Mattos and Lehman College student Melinda Garcia Velez, who arrived from Colombia at age eight, said they found an outlet for their frustrations as invisible citizens through the New York State Youth Leadership Council. The council works toward the passage of the New York Dream Act and promotes students to “come out” with the slogan “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic.” Velez also started a “Dreamers” student group at Lehman, a movement which has spread to other universities, she said.
“We are tired of being criminalized,” Velez (pictured below) said. “My mother is my hero, and they call what she did a crime. No, my mother is not a criminal.
“We had talks about returning to Colombia, but I told her, ‘You came here to give my brother and me a better life. If you were able to do that, why would I give up because immigration laws say I don’t count? No. I am going to graduate high school, attend college and become what I want.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles and a longtime advocate of the Dream Act, said that the new wave of immigrant students are putting a “human face” on the struggle to contribute the best of themselves to the country in which they have grown up.
“They are showing they are ordinary young people like all the young people in our communities, cities and states,” Cardinal Mahony said. “[Americans] want all young people to have a chance to make a contribution.”
The cardinal also said that an unlikely cohort of support for immigration reform is being found among Evangelicals, who strongly believe in the Bible and its teachings to care for the less fortunate.
Don Kerwin, executive director for the Center on Migration Studies and author of And You Welcomed Me: Migration and Catholic Social Teaching (Lexington, 2009) agreed.
“We find it in the Beatitudes; we find it in the Catholic concept of preferential option for the poor and we find it nowadays in the witness of the Dreamers, who want to participate fully in their country,” Kerwin said. “We don’t have time to wait for Congress. What can we do now, individually and institutionally, to allow these students to attend school and to work?”