When Eli Morales was 5 years old, her parents made a difficult decision. They left Eli with her grandparents in Pachivia, Mexico, to pursue a more prosperous life in the United States.
Pachivia, a tiny town in the state of Guerrero just south of Mexico City, offered few opportunities for Eli's family. Her father earned money chopping wood and planting corn, but the family could hardly pay for food, water or electricity.
When her parents arrived in the United States, they moved to Apopka, an area outside Orlando where migrant workers — many of them poor and undocumented — flock to find work. Eli's parents got jobs in a nursery, where they earned enough to make a modest living.
When Eli was 10, she joined her parents here and started going to middle school in Apopka. At first, she thought she was just a regular kid. But one night at the family dinner table, her parents told her something crushing: She and her family were living here illegally.
Her parents had come here without documentation and they didn't have any for Eli either. That meant that neither she nor her parents could get drivers licenses in the state of Florida, they couldn't work here legally and, if the family were to be reported to the authorities, they could be imprisoned and eventually deported.
For Eli, it also meant that, unlike her peers at school, she probably wouldn't be going to college. Although some colleges quietly permit undocumented students to attend classes, since the students don't have a legal address they don't qualify for in-state tuition rates.
At first, says Eli, this didn't seem to be such a huge problem. But as she got older, fear of deportation crept into her life. (Her real last name does not appear here due to fear of deportation.)
"I used to imagine that my parents would go out for food and never come back be-cause they were deported," she recalls. She says she became withdrawn and self-conscious, and though she had always been a good student, she stopped taking honors classes when she got to high school. "I didn't see why it was worthwhile," she says. "I felt like my education was over."
Every year, about 65,000 children of undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools. They are not here of their own volition — they were brought by parents who entered the country illegally when their children were minors. Many have lived in the country most of their lives and feel like the United States is their home, but once they turn 18, they have no way to obtain citizenship or a legitimate way to live in the country as legal aliens. Though this country allows them to attend public school while they are minors, once they're adults they aren't eligible for visas or green cards, and in the eyes of the law, they are simply illegal immigrants. They might be able to attend college, but they can't receive federal financial aid and they can't apply for in-state tuition at schools in most states. Even if they do find a way to finish college, they can't be legally employed once they graduate. Those who are often end up working in manual labor, just like their parents.
In 2008, Eli graduated from high school and received her diploma at a ceremony held at the Amway Arena. With assistance from an organization that supports Apopka's immigrant community, she found a benefactor who's helping put her through college. But while she works on her psychology degree, she's also working on another large project: She's part of a movement lobbying the federal government to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would make it possible for children brought to the country illegally as minors to earn the right to remain in the U.S. legally.U.S. legally.
The Development, Relief and Ed- ucation for Alien Minors Act is actually not one single law. Rather, it's a host of legislative proposals that would amend the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), which urged states to deny children of undocumented immigrants a number of benefits enjoyed by citizens, including in-state tuition and access to financial aid, among other things. The bill would allow students who met certain criteria to live in the country legally for a period of six years while they worked toward U.S. citizenship.
If the DREAM Act were passed, undocumented students between the ages of 12 and 35 could apply to the program if they entered the country before age 16. They would have to prove that they lived in the country for at least five consecutive years before the bill was enacted; that they graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a GED or had been accepted into a college program; and show "good moral character."
If approved, applicants would be granted conditional permanent residency, which would require them to enroll in a college or university or a branch of the U.S. military. The applicant would have six years to complete at least two years of school or military service, at which point he or she could then apply for permanent residency — and eventually, U.S. citizenship.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) first introduced the DREAM Act in 2001, but it met with no success. Over the past five sessions of Congress, as the nation has struggled with the immigration debate, the act has come up again and again. It has undergone changes (one, for instance, removed language that would grant undocumented students access to in-state tuition rates at state universities), but its primary mission — to give undocumented people brought here as children a chance to legitimize their residency — remains intact.
The latest version of the DREAM Act was introduced in 2009 (S.729 in the Senate, H.R. 1751 in the House), and proponents of the bill are hoping it will come to the floor for a vote this fall. In July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a supporter and co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, announced that he would push for the bill to be considered before the end of the year; the National Immigration Law Center reported at the time that Reid was "considering pushing the DREAM Act as a standalone bill in 2010," rather than including it as part of a comprehensive immigration-reform package that Congress has been trying to hammer out. That package is not likely to be introduced until after the November elections, which means it probably won't be voted on this year. So in order to be considered before that, the DREAM Act needs a champion. Reid has a strong statement in support of the bill on his website, but a staffer from Reid's office declined to comment for this story.
"There is no secure prospect for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate," says Juan Escalante, communications director for DreamActivist.org, a volunteer-run organization that supports undocumented young people in the United States and is pushing for Congress to consider the bill in the coming months. "The DREAM Act should be a down payment for comprehensive immigration reform," he says. "With it, you empower students."
In 2009 the College Board, a nonprofit membership organization for colleges and universities, published an advocacy paper written by Roberto Gonzales of the University of Washington's School of Social Work in Seattle. The paper calls students like Eli the "1.5 generation" — a group of U.S. residents who don't quite qualify as either first or second-generation immigrants. Despite exclusion from citizenship, they identify as U.S. residents, and if they were to be uprooted and sent back to their native countries, they would lack social, familial or cultural connections.
Sister Ann Kendrick, head of community relations for the Hope Community Center in Apopka, sees 1.5 generation students every day — students whose home countries might as well be foreign lands to them.
"We deport these students to places where they don't even have memories," Kendrick says. "It's a brain-drain and a creativity drain not to support these students. If they could find good jobs, safety and stability in their home countries, they wouldn't be here."
Gonzales' paper also points out that higher education is a crucial component of upward mobility for anyone — legal or not. In fact, in a 1982 case (Plyer v. Doe), the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not discriminate against illegal immigrants by charging them tuition for their children to attend kindergarten through 12th grade. Justice William Brennan wrote in the majority opinion that "denying K-12 education to undocumented children amounted to creating a ‘lifetime of hardship' and a ‘permanent underclass.'"
According to Gonzales, the DREAM Act extends this logic to higher education. Though skeptics say undocumented immigrants are a drain on the economy, Gonzales counters by citing statistics that connect increased education to increased income, and argues that preventing undocumented students from being able to contribute to the economy hurts everyone.
"Numerous studies demonstrate that legal status brings fiscal, economic and labor- market benefits to individual immigrants, to their families and to society in general," he writes. "Over time, given a chance, young men and women who are now undocumented will improve their education, get better jobs and pay more taxes."
Critics of the DREAM Act — which include groups such as Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee and Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — say the bill amounts to "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants and rewards parents for bringing children to the country illegally.
"It's selective amnesty," says Bryan Griffith, multimedia director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. He predicts that, if passed, the law could create a sticky situation by creating families of mixed immigration status. Parents remain undocumented, but their children have legal residency. If the parents are discovered, "it becomes an issue of breaking up families."
Griffith also warns that the DREAM Act could provide a backdoor for illegal residents to obtain citizenship. He says that once undocumented students graduate from high school, they ought to be required to return to their home countries and apply for citizenship through the proper channels — a process that could take years.
"What's going to happen with these families once their children are legal, permanent residents?" Griffith asks. "Down the road, they will help their families `achieve legal status`."
Opponents of the bill say that rather than pass inadequate piecemeal legislation, the country would be better off waiting until Congress comes up with its comprehensive reform package, however long it may take. Even members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have failed to support bringing the DREAM Act up for a vote, holding out for full reform — something that troubles DREAM Act supporters and advocates for undocumented young people whose lives hang in the balance.
"The CHC needs to jump on board or get out of the way," says DreamActivist's Escalante, who says activists have been visiting legislators' offices and holding rallies and protests across the nation urging Congress to bring the bill up for a vote this year.
According to the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, there are 60 senators who currently do not support the bill.
Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) is one of them. Jessica Garcia, a spokesperson for LeMieux says, "the current legislation as written will not provide a long-term solution to the students' situation."
Despite vocal support for the bill from advocates, she says, the senator has concerns.
"The senator has met personally with a number of DREAM Act supporters," says Garcia. "We have to be careful `that` any change in law doesn't have the unintended consequence of incentivizing illegal immigration."illegal immigration."
Eli is now 21 years old. Though she's lucky enough to have a benefactor and the Hope Community Center to help her find her way, she still faces the challenges of living illegally. Ever mindful of the notion that she could be deported, she stays under the radar, so to speak.
Through the Hope Community Center, she learned of the DREAM Act last fall and the little glimmer of hope it holds for students in her precarious position. She threw herself into advocating for it and now considers herself an activist for the cause.
"Once I was connected with the HCC, I really came out of my shell," she says. "I saw people going through the same things as me — or worse."
When asked what she thinks about the claim that the bill will create an even larger immigration problem in this country, she says she can't imagine how that could happen.
"Border security is growing," she says, pointing out that the bill has very specific eligibility criteria and only helps those willing to put in the work to earn their right to stay here. "Students must be in the U.S. for five full years before they can apply for DREAM."
The bill also requires accountability on the part of those seeking relief under its potential mandate. If the applicant commits a crime greater than a misdemeanor while under the six-year temporary residency, for instance, he or she would be subject to deportation. If the applicant fails to meet the college or military requirements set forth in the bill, he or she would lose the temporary residency. It's not, supporters say, a free ride.
Eli points out figures on an epic mural painted on the wall of the Hope Community Center. Beneath a banner that reads "Esperanza" are images of farm workers, smiling families and religious symbols. They're meant to represent the dignity, struggle and solidarity of all immigrants living in the United States.
A budding activist and the daughter of agricultural workers, the iconic farm-worker rights activist Cesar Chavez resonates with her in particular. She talks about how she and a group of other activists, including Sister Kendrick and members of the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Students Working for Equal Rights, held a rally for the DREAM Act last fall.
They marched from Apopka High School to a press conference at the Hope Community Center; the students marched in two lines and towed a giant orange ribbon to symbolize solidarity. "As we walked through the neighborhoods, people came out and joined us," Eli says. "We left the school with about 150 students and ended with at least 50 more."
Last spring a busload of activists from the Hope Community Center attended rallies in Washington, D.C., in support of the DREAM Act. Sister Kendrick says it was a significant learning experience for the students, many of whom were probably too cautious to speak up for themselves before, for fear of getting into trouble that could get them deported.
"These students are learning the political process and coming out of the shadows," Kendrick says.
Eli nods in agreement. She says the criticism and frustration and fear often hurt, but she tries not to let it stop her.
"Sometimes," she says, "it seems harder being here than going back to Mexico. But most of the time, I want to fight."