WASHINGTON — On a perfect spring Tuesday, 65 high school students gathered for a commencement on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. They wore flowing gowns, cheered as their valedictorian spoke, and flung their caps into the air. Strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" washed over the crowd. The American flag flew high overhead as they celebrated years of hard work.
But these students — children of immigrant parents who have not been legally admitted into the United States — hadn't gathered to graduate. They were there to show that while high school graduation is considered a door to greater opportunities for most people, for them and an estimated 65,000 other students in the U.S., it will only lead to menial work or deportation.
Yesterday's mock graduation — which was also attended by hundreds of supporters — was staged to put pressure on Congress and the Bush administration to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, legislation that would allow these students to receive in-state tuition and become permanent citizens after two years of college, trade school or military service. The bill has been introduced and approved by committees in the Senate, and a similar House version is in committee. Neither bill has been scheduled for debate or a vote.
"Under current law, these young people generally derive their immigration status solely from their parents," the National Immigration Law Center said in a statement, "and if their parents are undocumented or in immigration limbo, most have no mechanism to obtain legal residency even if they have lived most of their lives [in the U.S.]. The DREAM Act provides such a mechanism for those who are able to meet certain conditions."
Their immigration status makes it difficult for these students to get into college (the federal government discourages states from providing them with in-state tuition) and it leaves them vulnerable to deportation.
DREAM Act "valedictorian" Marie Gonzales, 18, was born in Costa Rica but came to Missouri with her family when she was 5. The honor student grew up with dreams of college and law school, and she participated in the same after-school activities and classes as the highest-achieving kids in her state.
But in 2002 her father received a call from the Immigration and Naturalization Services informing him the family's visa had expired. After many trials and hearings, the family was ordered to be deported, but an appeal has been filed. She says her family could be deported any day.
"It would be devastating," she said. "We knew we weren't citizens, but we didn't know we weren't legal. We paid taxes and worked hard."
Although the DREAM Act has many supporters, it also has detractors. Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform said his organization opposes the law on several grounds. "By giving legal residence to these illegal aliens, it encourages others to come to the country illegally," Martin said. "Secondly, it competes with American students for limited spaces in universities and scholarship funds, and finally, it's an unfair burden on the American taxpayer to fund in-state tuition benefits for people that do not belong in the country."
Martin contests the notion that the students on the Capitol lawn are Americans. "Mexican [immigrants] consider themselves Americans, Argentinean [immigrants] consider themselves to be Americans, and they are not legal citizens of the United States and as such they should not be accommodated," he said.
Raul Yzaguirre, director of the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest Hispanic advocacy groups in America, doesn't agree. At the Capitol demonstration, he reminded the students that "immigrants may not have the right kind of papers, but they have the right kind of spirit."
"Spirited" is one way to describe some advocates of the DREAM Act. According to The Washington Post, another group of DREAM Act supporters protested outside the home of President Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, late in March. The crowd chanted and pounded on windows for 30 minutes before leaving on the condition that Rove meet with two of the demonstrators. Rove met with them for two minutes in his garage before closing the door while one of the demonstrators was still speaking.
Back at the more peaceful Capitol demonstration, Marie Gonzalez said that without the DREAM Act or another change in state or federal laws, she will not be able to go to college.
Hopeful of jump-starting that process, the students and hundreds of supporters marched to the Department of Education to hand-deliver 100,000 signed petitions from around the United States. The petitions asked President Bush to ensure the passage of the DREAM Act.
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