POLL: Dreaming the dream: Immigrant higher-ed students hope to obtain legal status

Erika Grispino (center), 21, of Naples, marches with others to lobby for the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would give a select group of undocumented students a path toward conditional legal permanent residency. Grispino came to the United States as a teen and has lived legally in Collier County since then, but does not qualify for legal permanent residency under current immigration laws.

Maryann Batlle/Special to the Daily News

Erika Grispino (center), 21, of Naples, marches with others to lobby for the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would give a select group of undocumented students a path toward conditional legal permanent residency. Grispino came to the United States as a teen and has lived legally in Collier County since then, but does not qualify for legal permanent residency under current immigration laws.

Should legal and illegal immigrant college students receive the same status as U.S. citizens?

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■ As of 2007, an estimated 2.1 million people might be eligible to benefit from the DREAM Act.

Source: Congressional Report, Feb. 2010

■ In 2009, there were about 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. (That is a drop from 2008 when the number was estimated to be 11.6 million. The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has been dropping for the last three years.)

Source: L.A. Times, Department of Homeland Security, Feb. 2010

■ About 65,000 undocumented immigrant youth graduate from high schools in the United States every year.

Source: UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education

■ Ten states offer in-state tuition for illegal immigrants: California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin

Source: The Associated Press

■ In 2007, the United States ranked 12th out of 36 developed countries for postsecondary education attainment among ages 25 to 34.

■ As of 2008, 41.6 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 in the United States have obtained an associate’s degree or higher. (That’s an increase from 2007.)

■ In Florida, 30.7 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 have obtained an associate’s degree or higher.

■ Florida ranked 33rd out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 34 with an associate’s degree or higher.

■ As of 2008, 30.3 percent of blacks in the United States between the ages of 25 and 34 have obtained an associate’s degree or higher.

■ As of 2008, 19.8 percent of Hispanics in the United States between the ages of 25 and 34 have obtained an associate’s degree or higher.

■ As of 2008, 70.7 percent of Asians in the United States between the ages of 25 and 34 have obtained an associate’s degree or higher.

■ Most students drop out during their first year. Minority, first-generation and low-income students are the most at-risk to drop out.

Source: The College Completion Agenda 2010 Progress Report, College Board Advocacy & Policy Center

n In 2008-09, 72 percent of Collier graduates and 71 percent of Lee graduates reported plans after high school.

Source: Leslie Williams-Hale, Naples Daily News

When Argentina native Erika Grispino tells people she’s an “American,” she has to add an asterisk at the end of her sentence because of her immigration status.

“It feels like I don’t belong here and I don’t belong (in Argentina) anymore. I feel insecurity,” the 21-year-old said.

But if the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, a bipartisan Senate bill known as the “DREAM Act,” passes in Congress this year, Grispino, of Naples, would be eligible to apply to change her status from temporary to permanent. Last week, Grispino attended the so-called Dream University in Washington, D.C., where she joined more than 200 potentially eligible legal and illegal immigrants, known as “dreamers,” and their allies in a push to convince senators to pass the act.

Under several days of pressure from the dreamers, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has the power to bring the bill to a vote, met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to discuss their plan of action for the DREAM Act, which has made supporters hopeful that it will finally pass this year.

But the opposition believes the measure would reward illegal behavior and undermine the rule of law and are determined to block the measure.

“Under the DREAM Act illegal minors would be given permanent resident status and be granted the higher education benefits of legal citizens. I strongly oppose this ridiculous proposal,” Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, wrote to Grispino in a letter.

But Grispino wasn’t discouraged. Even though she described herself as “shy,” her passion has motivated her to make friends with strangers, lobby lawmakers and march the streets of D.C.

Grispino said she feels the urgency, especially to get this version of the act passed.

“We have a small window of opportunity to get this passed,” she said.

Collier County schools do not keep track of how many undocumented students graduate from high schools in the county, but an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools nationwide every year, according to a study by the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. It’s hard to assess just how many people would stand to benefit from the Dream Act but a congressional report put the number as high as 2.1 million. Other organizations claim the actual number may be closer to 10,000.

The Dream Act

Various versions of the Dream Act have appeared in both houses of Congress during the last decade and have failed to pass. The current DREAM Act was sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in March 2009. That same month, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., introduced a similar measure in the House, H.R. 1751, known as the “American Dream Act.”

Neither bill has made it to a vote.

Grispino learned about the latest versions two months ago while doing research for a class presentation.

“I saw that it died in Congress (in 2007) and I thought there was nothing I could do,” she said.

Under S.B. 729, the current DREAM bill in the Senate, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before they turned 16, either legally or illegally, may apply for permanent residency as long as they meet all of the specified requirements and are not older than 35 on the day of the bill’s passage.

To qualify, an immigrant must have lived continuously in the United States for at least five years, must be deemed to have good moral character, and must obtain at least a two-year college degree or serve two years in the military in a six-year period.

When a person changes his or her immigration status to conditional legal permanent resident, or LPR, he or she would qualify for student loans, including need-based Perkins loans, work-study and in-state tuition rates if applicable under the Senate version.

The act is retroactive; only immigrants who meet all of these conditions the day the bill passes will be eligible.

Living in Limbo

Grispino has lived in Collier County legally for seven years but is not eligible for permanent residency or citizenship under current immigration laws. When she was 14, her mother brought her to the United States from Argentina to escape political persecution.

“I had no one else to live with so I had to follow my mom,” she said.

They overstayed their travel visas and worked with lawyers to apply for asylum but missed an important deadline and could no longer qualify. An immigration judge later granted them a “withholding of removal,” which is similar to asylum but comes with restrictions that Grispino believes have kept her from reaching her full potential.

As part of the conditions of her immigration status, Grispino can live, drive, work and go to school in the country without fearing reprisal, but if she ever traveled outside of the U.S. she would not be granted re-entry.

Grispino is very involved in her local church and dreams of doing mission work around the world, but she’s kept her travels within U.S. borders.

That isn’t the hardest concession for her to make.

Because she’s not a citizen she is ineligible for in-state tuition rates and without a Social Security number she doesn’t qualify for any financial aid. She works full-time to pay for her current college classes, taking just two at a time because that’s all she can afford.

“They tell you that you can do anything you want and be anyone you want … that you just have to work hard for it. But working hard isn’t enough for us,” she said.

Despite this, she plans to graduate in May with honors from Edison State College with a degree in paralegal studies. After that, she hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Florida Gulf Coast University.

Her ultimate goal is to be a guidance counselor, but she needs a master’s degree and she may not be able to afford graduate school -– unless the Dream Act passes.

“Maybe I’ll take a class a semester,” she said. “I might finish when I’m 70.”

From Silence to Activism

The mission of the dreamers in Washington, D.C., and when they return to their respective states, is to get more co-sponsors for the DREAM Act.

“We are meeting with (senators), we are talking to them, we are sharing our stories and … we are holding them responsible individually,” Grispino said.

On the first day she was in Washington, D.C., Grispino and two others participated in a sit-in outside of U.S. Sen. George LeMieux’s office. They left peacefully with a promise that LeMieux, R-Fla., would meet with DREAM activist leaders soon.

Twenty-one activists were arrested after participating in similar sit-ins. About 10 of the activists were arrested when they went from sit-ins to demonstrations in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building in the nation’s capital. The rest were arrested in the offices of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Reid for staying beyond closing time.

“Everybody understood going into this that we could face arrest,” said Juan Escalante, 21, spokesman for the Dream Is Coming, a web-based organization for DREAM activists that organized some of the events.

While the students do face charges of disorderly conduct and illegal entry, no one was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for deportation, Escalante said. They must all appear in court for sentencing in a month in Washington, D.C.

From time to time, the activists take a break from all the politics.

Grispino said she danced the “Cha-Cha Slide” in front of the White House with her new friends and some strangers.

“It was an undocumented dance. Anyone could join,” she said.

Of Dreams and Politics

To date, 40 senators have co-sponsored the DREAM Act, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

LeMieux, Florida’s junior senator, replaced former DREAM Act supporter Sen. Mel Martinez, a fellow Republican. Sen. LeMieux does not believe the bill is a long-term solution.

“The senator’s view is children should not have to pay for the transgressions of their parents. But at the same time we have to be careful any change in federal law doesn’t have the unintended consequence of incentivizing additional illegal immigration,” according to a statement from Lemieux’s office.

Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, whose district covers part of Collier County, including Immokalee, is one of more than 120 co-sponsors of the House version of the bill because he believes those who would be eligible under the act are “good kids.”

“These are the kinds of people we want,” he said. “(These are people) that have performed, that are going to school, that are educating themselves and who have been here for a big chunk of their lives.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, known as FAIR, a national nonprofit organization that wants to curb immigration “to more traditional rates of about 300,000 a year” by strengthening border security, believes the DREAM Act is “a bad idea,” according to the group’s website.

Bob Dane, a FAIR spokesman, said the bill is another way to “piecemeal amnesty.”

“Graduation used to come with a cap and gown, not a green card,” Dane said.

The way the act defines the term “student” is too loose, according to FAIR.

“While it’s being marketed as an education initiative … you can be up to the age of 35 and take advantage of it,” Dane said.

If the Dream Act passes, similar laws that would “reward” illegal immigrants for breaking the law would follow, according to Dane. He said that undocumented students can always apply for citizenship “the right way” without the bill.

“They can go back to their country of origin and apply for an F1 student visa,” he said.

The Trail of Dreams

Grispino said the story of four college activists who walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., in what became known as “The Trail of Dreams” inspired her to become an activist.

In January, Juan Rodriguez, 20, Gaby Pacheco, 25, Felipe Matos, 24, and Carlos Roa, 22, marched 1,500 miles to bring attention to the DREAM Act and to other issues faced by undocumented youth. All four live in Miami but are originally from Latin American countries.

“They were fighting for my dreams and the dreams of my friends,” Grispino said. “They have nothing. I have my employment card; I have my driver’s license. I realized I should be helping.”

Pacheco, Matos, and Roa are undocumented; Rodriguez was recently granted residency.

Matos, who was brought to the United States by his mother at age 14 like Grispino, said he and the others risked deportation because they wanted things to change for everyone.

“We had a fire for human rights and we just couldn’t take the abuses anymore,” he said.

Matos said he and other dreamers are not criminals.

“Our only mistake is to stay in school and study hard. If that’s bad, we have a really good problem in this country,” he said.

For Grispino, the possible criticisms and setbacks she might face because of her choice to speak out are not a deterrent. Grisipino, an endurance runner who plans to complete a half-marathon, said she is energized to keep trying.

“I love it here so I’m going to stay as long as I can. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep running toward my goal. My dream,” she said.

Staff writer Elysa Batista contributed to this report.

QUOTES

■ “We should not be punished for being the product of an inhumane and broken immigration system. We have no control over the conditions of our home country that forced our parents to come here.” -- Erika Grispino, 21, undocumented student and DREAM activist

■ “I believe in legal immigration, but legal immigration means just that - legal. People who entered this country illegally should not receive the benefits provided to citizens.” – Statement from Rep. Connie Mack

■ “These kids can go to college anyway. For better or for worse, a lot of colleges look the other way … it’s unfair to reward them with in-state tuition and citizenship.” – Bob Dane, spokesman for FAIR: Federation for Immigration Reform

■ “The DREAM Act would allow a generation of immigrant students with great potential and ambitions to contribute more fully to America.” – Statement from Sen. Richard Durbin

■ “I’m Catholic … original sin is a religious concept, but I don’t think we should apply it to children.” – Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart

■ “We got here early on in our lives and they taught us American values – the value of hard work and community service – and we take that to heart,” – Felipe Matos, 21, undocumented student and DREAM activist

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