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New DREAM Act bill raises hope among DACA educators for undocumented students

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | July 21, 2017

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(Courtesy: Teach for America)

The introduction of a new Dream Act that aims to permanently legalize undocumented youth who came to the country as children sparked optimism among DACA educators in Los Angeles.

The new bill presented to Congress on Thursday is even more generous than DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — because it offers a path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship for at least 1 million undocumented youth across the nation.

Mitchell Jimenez, a DACA teacher in Los Angeles, said the presentation of the bill took him by surprise and fills him with hope.

“I feel optimistic that this law will pass and can change the lives of many people, as DACA changed mine. DACA for me has been a blessing,” said the 24-year-old teacher who came to the United States from Mexico 10 years ago. He was one of about 800,000 undocumented youth who benefited from President Obama’s executive order that issued DACA in 2012.

Jimenez is a resource teacher at Franklin High School in Highland Park, northeast of Los Angeles. He said he hopes that this new proposal of the Dream Act will be approved so that his undocumented students can have better opportunities than he did growing up undocumented.

“Before I was protected by DACA, going directly to a four-year college was out of my reach. Even though I had good grades in high school, I could only expect to go to a community college,” he said.

“Because of my immigration status, I could not apply for financial aid or scholarships. Those doors were closed for me, they were too many barriers,” said Jimenez, whose dream was to attend UCLA, but he knew that was out of reach.

The first version of the Dream Act was introduced in 2001 and then also unsuccessfully in 2010. If approved this time, it would allow states to grant undocumented students to pay the same college fees as state residents, instead of as foreign students.

Jimenez is a Teach For America (TFA) alumni, an organization that recruits and prepares teachers to teach in high-need schools. He works with students in grades 9-12, some of them undocumented. He hopes their lives will be much easier with the passage of the 2017 Dream Act.

“I want them to have the opportunity to be successful in this country. It is very difficult when you are told that you are not American, and you don’t even know another country as your home. We should have the opportunity to be Americans in paper,” he said. “I want them to have the opportunity to go to college and to do many other things that were impossible for me.”

After the announcement of the bill authored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, Teach For America President Elisa Villanueva Beard said in a statement that she hopes this bill can be a permanent measure to safeguard these vulnerable students and expand their access to high-quality education.

“We believe that every child deserves an equitable and excellent education. Depriving any student of the chance to learn and grow in our classrooms deprives our country of future leaders and contributors to our society and economy,” said Villanueva Beard.

About 140 TFA members with DACA status work in classrooms in high-need schools around the country, including Los Angeles, where it is estimated that at LA Unified there are 1 in 4 students who may be undocumented or have a parent who is undocumented. In California, about 250,000 children are undocumented.

“We believe these individuals deserve the right to pursue college degrees and careers without a threat of deportation,” said Villanueva Beard, adding that this summer all incoming members are receiving training led by members and alumni with DACA status on how to support undocumented students and families and create safe learning spaces.

The fear of deportation affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people like Jimenez who, despite being protected by DACA, know that their permanency in this country is always at risk.

“I wish I was no longer afraid,” Jimenez said. “Although for now I am safe with DACA, I want to stop feeling the fear and uncertainty about what could happen every time there is a new administration. My biggest dream is to be able to become a citizen of this country one day.”

Angelica Salas, executive director of Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), said, “We hope that President Trump and the leadership in the Congress will move our country forward. We support this proposal and we will fight intensively for DACA to continue to protect our young immigrants.”

Texas and nine other states have threatened to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration if the DACA program is not ended before Sept. 5.

The new bill would allow the legalization and eventual citizenship of young people who arrived in the country before the age of 17, have graduated from high school or have a GED, are attending college or have served at least two years of military service, and don’t have a criminal record.

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