Temple for a DREAM members continue to fight for and raise awareness about the DREAM Act.
Pamela Salazar was the valedictorian of her middle school, graduated in the Top 5 percent of Central High School and will be graduating from Temple in a few months with two majors and two minors. But there’s a catch: She isn’t in the country legally.
Salazar is one of an approximate 12 million undocumented people in the United States. She’s also one of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school in the U.S. each year who have lived in the country for at least five years.
Salazar, 21, was brought here from Bolivia by her parents in December 1989, when she was eight months old. Therefore, she also would have been a beneficiary of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, which was struck down in a 55-41 senate vote in December.
Although the act passed by a vote of 216-to-198 in the House of Representatives, the bill would have needed the support of 60 senators to pass.
The act was designed to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children to be put on a path toward citizenship.
Under its requirements, the DREAM Act would benefit those meeting all of the following criteria: are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application; entered the U.S. before the age of 16; lived in the U.S. for five-consecutive years; graduated high school, obtained a General Educational Development diploma or been accepted into an institute of higher education; be of good moral character.
Salazar, a Spanish and information science and technology major who meets those requirements, isn’t giving up on her hope to become a U.S. citizen just yet.
Salazar, with the help of Julia Freedman, a theater and Spanish major, founded the student organization Temple for a DREAM in Fall 2010.
While the lame-duck session was in tact, Temple for a DREAM members wore graduation gowns at the Bell Tower, asking Temple students to call politicians and urge their support of the DREAM Act.
Now, the organization is focusing on educating students about immigration and the DREAM Act. In mid-March, Temple for a DREAM will take part in a “coming out” week initiated by several organizations across the country dedicated to the undocumented youth population.
Organizations, such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League and DreamActivist.org, encourage undocumented youth to take part in activist movements.
The IYJL declared March 10 “National Coming out of the Shadows Day” and has planned a rally in Chicago. The organization is pushing for actions across the country to take place on this date and during the following week.
Temple for a DREAM is planning to assist in a rally or event in Philadelphia during the week of March 14, Salazar said.
Although many undocumented students have publicly announced their illegal status in advocating for the DREAM Act, some credit sympathy and the Obama administration for law enforcement agencies not cracking down on the deportation of the noncitizen students.
“The administration has a tremendous amount of discretion in the enforcement of immigration law,” said Peter Spiro, a professor who teaches immigration law and international law. “From an enforcement perspective, it doesn’t make sense to go after highly sympathetic noncitizens such as the students that are publicly coming out as undocumented.”
“I think they can come out with some assurance that it’s not going to result in their removal,” Spiro said, adding that agencies are more likely to go after undocumented people engaging in criminal activity.
Spiro credited this, in part, to the “mismatch” between the estimated 12 million undocumented people and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which currently employs more than 20,000 people.
In June 2010, Eric Balderas, an undocumented Harvard student, was detained after trying to board an airplane. He was later released and granted permission to stay in the U.S. to finish his studies, as well as apply for a work permit.
“I think if you get a high-profile case like [Balderas’] in which the government backed down, that’s an informal kind of precedent,” Spiro said.
The government tends to enforce immigration laws more vigilantly in areas of the country in which anti-immigration sentiments are stronger, Spiro added.
“In Philadelphia in particular, there’s not a lot of visible anti-immigration sentiment, so there’s not a lot of visible anti-immigration enforcement here,” Spiro said.
Still, Spiro likened the risks of deportation to that of a lightening strike, noting that law enforcement of immigration laws can be unpredictable.
If deported, Salazar said she would be in “complete shock [and] scared.”
“I would be more scared for my parents than for myself,” Salazar said. “If it happens to me, I’ll fight it.”
While Temple for a DREAM and other proponents of the DREAM Act continue to push for the act to be passed, Spiro said he’s not optimistic its enactment will come any time soon.
“Even in a case where the noncitizens involved are highly sympathetic, as is the case with the DREAM Act beneficiaries, it’s just unacceptable to those who are opposed to anything that’s [related to] amnesty,” Spiro said.
“The hopes were that the DREAM Act could go through with stand-alone legislation, apart from any comprehensive immigration reform,” Spiro added. “I’m not optimistic that there are any good prospects for enacting this legislation in the short term.”
“Some [opponents of the act] were trying to rename this the ‘Nightmare Act,’” Spiro said.
In the meantime, Salazar said undocumented people continue to be subject to exploitation.
“You have these lawyers here that just basically exploit you for money. They make you pay for applications that they don’t even carry out,” Salazar said. She added that this was the case for her family, who contacted a lawyer after reaching the U.S. to look into ways to become legal citizens.
Another challenge affecting undocumented students, Salazar said, is support, or lack thereof, from high school counselors.
Salazar said her first high school counselor said he couldn’t help her apply to college, so she eventually switched to a different counselor who was more helpful.
These challenges are in addition to constant fear of being found out, Salazar said.
Salazar said she didn’t know she was undocumented until she was in fifth grade, when her brother needed a social security number to apply to college. She said her brother became a “different person” after learning of his undocumented status.
“He felt stuck. He hit a wall,” Salazar said. “He was just so depressed, and he would lash out against my parents.”
Salazar said that after learning of her status and about deportation and immigration laws during a class in sixth grade, she no longer wanted to make new friends.
“At that moment, I completely became shy, introverted. I didn’t want to stick out anymore,” Salazar said. “I knew I looked different, but I didn’t want to stick out in any other way.”
To help current high school students, Salazar said she and members of Temple for a DREAM are working on outreach opportunities to help inform high school students of their options and offer support.
As Salazar’s future remains up in the air, she said she fears her education may be meaningless.
“I’ve worked so hard, and it’s sad to think that maybe all my hard work will not be paying off,” Salazar said. “Although I will have my degree in my hand, and although I have worked so hard throughout all my years of studies, it will mean nothing because I can’t apply for jobs like a normal person can.”
“As of right now, I’m just taking it day by day and enjoying my Temple time,” Salazar added. “I’m just seeing what I can do, [doing] volunteer work to get experience.”
In the meantime, Temple for a DREAM is looking to work with larger organizations, such as DreamActivist.org, Salazar said.
“When you find people that are just like you, you feel like you have support,” Salazar said. “You don’t feel like you’re a stranger anymore.”
Temple for a DREAM is also trying to connect with student organizations of similar interests, as well as with faculty, Freedman said.
Megan Chialastri, the president of Temple College Democrats and a senior political science major, said her organization has worked informally with Temple for a DREAM.
In Fall 2009, the TCD sponsored a resolution with Temple Student Government supporting the DREAM Act and the students “who struggle to achieve the dream of higher education,” because of status.
The resolution requested that copies of the resolution be forwarded to President Ann Weaver Hart, among other administrators.
But Salazar said she wants to see public support from Hart.
“It would be great if [Hart] would come out with full support [of the DREAM Act] and write to Congressmen,” Salazar said. “We want her to be a leader.”
“I think it would be great if Ann Weaver Hart could listen to that voice from the students and help to amplify it and make it even louder,” Chialastri said.
Support from fellow organizations and faculty members could also be helpful in making this happen, Freedman said.
In the past, presidents at universities across the country, including University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, have signed letters requesting political support of the DREAM Act.
“Any supportive statements from persons of stature, institutional leaders and others who are [prominent] are helpful,” Spiro said. “I’m not sure how well they balance against anti-immigrant sentiment in the electorate. Legislators who are looking at this issue are mostly looking at their constituents’ preferences on the issue.”
Spiro said presidents’ supporting of the DREAM Act is likely more meaningful to the undocumented students at the universities.
“That’s important because it shows institutional solidarity, and it reflects an inclusive sentiment on the part of the leadership of the institutional community,” Spiro said. “When you get presidents coming out in support of the DREAM Act it, in effect, is saying ‘you’re one of us, and we’re with you.’”
Angelo Fichera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.