By SUSAN CARROLL
May 31, 2010, 7:35AM
A little over a year ago, Edith Paulín stood amid thousands of soon-to-be college graduates on the University of Texas campus, reveling in the pride of being the first in her family to earn a college diploma.
In the stands, she spotted her mother and father, who had brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 9 years old, a petite fourth-grader who spoke no English. She was proud that she could recite the Greek myth of Persephone and had become so Americanized that she roots for the U.S. World Cup soccer team, not Mexico's. And she was becoming a bona fide UT grad complete with the Hook 'em Horns on her car's bumper.
But the best word to describe her emotions that day, she said, was not jubilation. “It was a very bittersweet day for me,” said the 24-year-old from Houston.
Edith was walking away with a college diploma, but she still is missing another important piece of paper — a Social Security card. Without legal status, she knew her prospects for a job, her plans for the future, were essentially grinding to a halt.
And then there was Luz, her younger sister. She was not in the stands with the rest of her family. She was locked up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in north Houston after a traffic stop showed she had no license and no legal right to stay in the U.S.
On college campuses across the country, students brought to the U.S. illegally as children and teenagers are in the midst of graduation season, watching their peers apply for dream jobs, or packing up their bags to see the world. Many of the undocumented students watched as President Barack Obama and some congressional leaders talked of plans to push for a comprehensive immigration reform package by the end of the year that would legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
But with that prospect rapidly fizzling, some immigrant advocates are pushing for a separate, stand-alone bill that would put young illegal immigrants who stayed in school and out of trouble on the path toward citizenship. Since 2001, some members of Congress have been pushing a proposal, dubbed the DREAM Act, that advocates say would offer legal status to an estimated 65,000 children, teens and young adults who meet certain criteria, including attending college or enlisting in the military and passing a background check.
Pundits say the legislation may be the only part of reform that has a chance this year. The proposal again is emerging in the news, particularly since a recent spate of civil disobedience by students and their supporters.
McCain office sit-in
On May 17, four students — including three who were in the country illegally — were arrested in the offices of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., after staging a sit-in in support of the DREAM Act. The three were taken into immigration custody, prompting protests and shows of solidarity across the country, including a hunger strike in Michigan and a sit-in in the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in San Francisco.
Roberto G. Gonzales, assistant professor of social welfare at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the DREAM Act movement is taking on a life of its own, separate from the traditional immigrant advocacy movement.
The DREAM Act also picked up a lot of momentum in 2009, he said, largely because of key endorsements in several cities including New York and Los Angeles, higher education leaders including Ivy League college presidents, and big businesses such as Microsoft.
“It certainly has a lot more traction than it had in the past,” Gonzales said. “Is it going to be a tough fight? I think certainly. But given the very, very small window we have right now going into June, I think that if anything stands a chance, it's the DREAM Act.”
But immigration experts cautioned students like Edith not to get their hopes up too high for passage of any legislation this year, considering the anti-illegal immigration sentiment fomenting around the Arizona immigration law, the Tea Party protests and the upcoming congressional elections.
Nestor Rodriguez, a UT sociology professor, said he was skeptical that a comprehensive reform bill would pass this year, and he has only slightly higher expectations for the DREAM Act.
“If there's an initiative that has a better shot, the DREAM Act would be up there,” he said.
Cesar Espinosa, a Houston immigrant advocate who has helped organize rallies locally for both comprehensive reform and the DREAM Act, sounded pessimistic about the odds of passage for both proposals.
“They're both immigration reform policies and they're both very explosive, so we're not sure if Congress will take either of them on,” Espinosa said. “They're afraid to touch any kind of immigration reform with a 10-foot pole.”
Supporters of the DREAM Act say the students generally were brought to the U.S. by their parents through no fault of their own. But there is opposition to the proposal by anti-illegal immigration groups and some members of Congress, who have called it a mini-amnesty that could lead to fraud.
Feeling of uncertainty
In an opinion piece for The Hill, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, recently called the DREAM Act a “nightmare for the American people.”
For now, Edith said, there is little to do but wait. She'd love to go to graduate school, to travel the world.
When she looks back on her college graduation, she said, she remembers a feeling of uncertainty, of indefiniteness. And she wonders: “Will I look back on this as the best time in my life?” she said. “I hope not. I want it to be a good time, of course, but not the best time. I want my life to get better.”
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By SUSAN CARROLL