By: Joe Rodriguez/Merc News
For years, college students Christian Poblano and Luis Romero had quietly supported the Dream Act. On a sunny but chilly Tuesday afternoon in downtown San Jose, the two undocumented immigrants stood in front of a line of news cameras and finally spoke out.
“I always secretly supported the Dream Act,” Poblano said in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. “I definitely still feel scared, but I feel encouraged and empowered because I’m speaking for those who want to speak out but feel they can’t.”
He was only a few months old when his parents brought him to San Jose from Mexico City. Poblano is now an 18-year-old freshman at San Jose State, and the Dream Act proposal has been around for half of his life. First introduced in 2001, the congressional measure would grant legal residency to a generation of illegal immigrants who were brought here as children.
They feel time is running out. While the Dream Act has support from Democrats and Republicans, it doesn’t stand much of a chance after a more conservative Congress — and slate of tea party candidates — takes power in January.
“This is it for me,” said Romero, who was 5 when his parents brought him to the United States. The 25-year-old senior will graduate soon with a bachelor’s degree in justice studies but without the legal status to put his education to work in this country. “My future depends a lot on passing the Dream Act now.”
He’s thinking about his options if the bill doesn’t pass; he might go to medical school in Mexico or emigrate to Canada.
About a dozen students and immigrant-rights activists attended Tuesday’s news conference, which ended with cell phone calls to a Dream Act hot line that connected supporters to members of Congress. Poblano reached the message box for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat has already vowed to move for a vote. Poblano left a message anyway.
“Hello, I’m calling from San Jose, California. It’s a very important piece of legislation to be passed.”
Like many college students who would benefit if the bill passes, Poblano and Romero speak flawless English and have blended into the large student body. With a mop-top haircut like former Beatle Paul McCartney, Poblano knows what he’d do if the bill passes.
“The first thing I would do,” he said, “is get a driver’s license. Then I’d look for a job.”
As undocumented students, both pay in-state tuition but are not eligible for government scholarships or loans and cannot work legally without Social Security cards. Neither student has left the country for fear of not being able to return.
The Dream Act would grant legal residency to illegal immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, lived here for at least five years and completed two years of college or military service. They must have no criminal record and must pass background checks before they can become legal residents or permanent citizens. Until then, however, they would not qualify for federal scholarships even if they win residency.
An estimated 825,000 out of 2.1 million undocumented students could gain legal status if the measure passes. About 553,000 of them live in California.
Officially named the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the bill has enjoyed some measure of bipartisan support. The bill’s co-author is Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana. Other GOP supporters include Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Collin Powell and former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.
However, chances are the Dream Act will get floor action but not come to a vote. Each political party and the White House have must-pass and hope-to-pass priorities. These include a compromise on renewing the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy families, extending federal unemployment benefits and a measure to send $250 checks to Social Security recipients.
Some Republicans object to the bill because they say it opens the door to the legalization of youths’ undocumented parents and other family members.
Poblano and Romero said they will appeal for passage to the very end of the session, asking politicians and Americans in general to put their youth, hard work and love of country over their illegal status.
“We go to school, we make friends, we speak the language,” Poblano said. “We are like you. I’m very blessed to be here.”