Every year, on the second Friday in December, high school seniors from across the country march their application materials through their communities to a local post office or mail truck. The College March began in 2011 at NYC Outward Bound’s network school, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). In one year, participation spread throughout the network and continues to grow annually. It is a day that allows students to enthusiastically approach the college application process, rather than feel intimidated.
This year, over 2,700 seniors will march at 35 schools across 12 cities.
Immigrants rights activists and legislators faced a setback last week in the push for the New York DREAM Act, which would give financial aid opportunities to undocumented youth, when the act failed to be included in this year’s $135 billion state budget.
The bill’s failure to be included in the budget stemmed from a discrepancy between the state’s two legislative bodies, the assembly and the senate. The State Assembly, which currently has a Democratic majority, had already included $25 million in its budget for the New York DREAM Act. However, the Senate never included it in its version of the budget.
“In the Senate it’s a much more complex situation right now,” said Katherine Tabares, a youth organizer for the not-for-profit Make the Road New York. “Republicans are not in favor of it and they, together with the independent Democratic caucus, form the majority.” There are currently 22 sponsors of the bill in the 63-member Senate.
Since it was not incorporated into the budget, the bill’s only chance of being enacted this year would be if both houses pass it by the end of the legislative session in June. The bill would make New York the fourth state to pass a DREAM Act granting undocumented students access to state funded financial aid. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, but only 5-10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go to college, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Assemblymember Francisco Moya introduced the bill in its current form in mid-January alongside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah J. Glick. The bill would give access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to qualifying undocumented youth, also establishing a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for scholarships for children on immigrants. To qualify for the bill, undocumented students must have attended a New York high school for at least two years, graduated or received a GED, enroll in a college or university in the state of New York, and meet the requirements for TAP.
Senate Republicans in opposition to the bill have taken issue with its use of public funds. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said legislation establishing a private Dream Fund instead had a possibility to pass this year.
“I think there is support from people that tend to be a little bit more conservative,” said Skelos at the Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum in February. “As long as it’s private money put into the fund.”
But Tabares said there are already private funds for undocumented students, and that they do not go far enough to meet their financial needs.
“Regardless of whether national immigration reform is passed or not, the time that it would take for an undocumented youth to actually receive financial benefits from the federal government will be up to 14 years, so many students will have already graduated,” said Tabares, who is also a second semester student at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. “The NY DREAM Act needs to pass this year because there are so many youth right now who can’t attend college.”
Governor Cuomo, who has come out in support of a federal DREAM Act, has yet to voice his support for the state sponsored legislation. Legislators in support of the bill have recently been more vocal in pushing the governor to take a stance.
“On behalf of all Dreamers, I am urging Governor Cuomo to again bring to bear his great courage, considerable political skills and extraordinary leadership abilities in getting something big, important and meaningful done. And make no mistake: Immigration reform is important and most certainly needs to get done,” said cosponsor Senator Jose Peralta in a statement last week.
“If Cuomo came out in support, many of the Senate Republicans in a neutral position right now could change their minds,” said Taberes. “But he hasn’t been vocal about it, and there continues to be opposition and a lot of doubt over the bill.”
Other undocumented students continued to hope the bill would pass while they were still in school.
“I feel behind compared to my citizen friends who have financial aid,” said Viviana Sanchez, a student at York College in Jamaica, Queens. “There are thousands of Dreamer students in New York State it would mean a lot to them, to parents—to my parents—and to myself.”
Sanchez, 19, added that her financial situation and inability to receive state financial aid have kept her a semester behind and forced her to attend college part-time.
“It’s been very hard for me to get through school, I try to work to supplement it with a bit of my parents help, but it’s still taking longer than it should,” she said.
Sanchez on the financial burden of being an undocumented student
Tabares said the key to having the bill pass was continued activism throughout the state.
“I personally have seen the growth in the last three years about the community being more vocal and supportive about it,” said Tabares. “Undocumented youth have been fighting for the NY DREAM act for years, you just can’t give up until you get what you want.”
Last month nearly 200 students and activists joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization that represents undocumented youth, in an organized trip to the state capital calling on legislators to enact the NY DREAM Act. The group completed scheduled visits with 59 legislative offices and in addition to those planned visits, also completed drop-in visits with 31 additional legislative offices, according to Gabriel Aldana, a member of the NYSYLC.
As a result, the group had 12 new co-sponsors, said Aldana.
Maria Jaime, 21, co-coordinator of the Westchester chapter of the NYSYLC, led a team of participants to meet with staff of State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, and Assembly Member Addie J. Russell.
“Lobbying like this is a crucial part of passing a bill, focusing on activism and getting out in the streets,” said Jaime, a senior at Manhattanville College. “At the end of the day politicians are voting on the bill, but we give them that power as constituents.”
According to a report by the NYSYLC in conjunction with NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, the cost of extending the Tuition Assistance program would be approximately $17 million per year.
“If the New York State DREAM legislation were financed through the state income tax, it would represent 87¢ per year—less than the price of a single donut—for a median tax payer,” said Jaime.
Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, a co-sponsor of the bill following the NYSYLC’s trip to Albany, said he looked forward to the bill coming to the floor.
“This is an issue that has been before us for a number of years, I think it’s of the utmost importance that everybody be given the opportunity in this country to advance themselves and move on,” he said.
Pretlow on the importance of passing the NYS Dream Act
Jaime said overall she felt the visit was a success, and that the most rewarding aspect was seeing others in her team share their stories with legislative staff.
“Seeing how each time you tell a story it gets more a little more personal, that’s great for their own growth throughout the day,” she said. “Last year when I came was the first time I shared my story with politicians as well, I didn’t tell anyone but I was really scared, but once you say it out loud it’s so empowering.”
Maria Jaime on putting a face to the issue
Sanchez, a member of Jaime’s team, echoed the sentiment.
“Of course it’s daunting to tell a politician your story, they’re the people who make the laws, the people who decide if I stay here or not, if the New York DREAM act passes or not,” she said. “But it’s such a big accomplishment for me.”
Zishun Ning, a senior cinema studies major in Tisch School of the Arts at New York University from Guangdong Province in China, came to the U.S. two and a half years ago for the sole purpose of landing a job in the U.S. when he finished college.
But unlike domestic graduates, the 7,000 international students at NYU face much bigger challenges than securing a job here after graduating. They have to deal with restrictive visa requirements and limited jobs opportunities because of their limited visa status.
“I want to find a job here after graduation,” said Ning. “However, it’s not easy because not many companies are willing to offer working visas to international students and there is only a limited amount of visas being offered each year.”
Paula Lee, director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University, said because hiring international students is costly and time-consuming, it is less likely for companies with limited resources to hire international students.
“You might have to pay a few thousand but if I am a small organization, I might not have the finances to pay to hire international students,” she said.
After graduation, international students like Ning, have one year to work in the U.S. under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, as long as their profession is related to their field of study. But, they must obtain a HIB visa to be able to work in the U.S. for a longer time before the program expires.
The H1B visa is a non-immigrant visa for foreigners to work in the U.S. for three years and can be extended for another three years at the discretion of the employer. If an employer decides to hire an international student, they must apply to the government for the visa on behalf of the student. When the H1B visa expires, a student must apply for another kind of visa or green card to retain legal status in the U.S. H1B visa holders are eligible to apply for green cards and to become citizens while still holding a H1B visa.
Ning said he wanted to start his career as a production assistant in the film industry to gain some working experience. Currently an intern at Deep Dish TV, Ning is worried he might not be able to get a job with an H1B sponsor visa before the program ends.
“The economy is bad,” said Ning.
Bangzheng He, a second year graduate student from Sichuan Province in China and a mathematics major at NYU, said he was not optimistic about the employment future in the U.S. for international students.
“I know some friends of mine, who are working right now under the OPT,” said He. “But the companies are not sponsoring them H1B so they probably have to leave and find another job which could sponsor them.”
Renjie Xie, a second year grad student from Shanghai, China, and a mathematics major, said the only way of securing a job in the states is by working hard and maintaining a positive attitude.
“When you are under OPT, you have to do as much as you can and do everything they want you to do,” said Xie. “My friend told me that it’s still a tough time, you can’t show your emotions, or lose your temper.”
According to the Open Doors report, which was published by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the most popular majors for international students are business and management, which accounts for 22 percent of international students area of study, engineering (19 percent), mathematics and computer science (9 percent), physical and life sciences (9 percent), fine & applied arts (5 percent), and health professions (5 percent).
With one third of his classmates from outside the U.S.,He agreed that different course of study played a role in the employment situation.
“From what I heard, your major really matters,” said Bangzheng He. “Employers want to find the right people for the job.”
Ning said even though he wanted to apply for a green card and hoped to live the “American dream” — something that his parents and relatives expected him to do, he has learned that the process of making that dream come true is hard.
“I feel some pressure from my parents and relatives,” said Ning. “They wanted me to stay here for a few years. For them and for me, it was a waste of time if I went back to China with no working experience. In that case, they would say, ‘Why didn’t you just go to college in China?’”
Compared to Ning’s “American Dream,” Xie said he had a “Chinese Dream,” which was going back to China to build his career back home if staying in the U.S. didn’t work out.
“My parents and relatives asked me to find a job in the U.S. and stay here,” said Xie. “But for me, I don’t think that’s something I have to do because I think as long as there is an opportunity out there, I will go for it no matter where it is.”
Having been in the U.S. for five years, Xie said he has started looking at job postings from websites from big firms like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch to smaller investment banks.
Lee also encouraged international students not to turn down potential opportunities that might exist in their home country.
“We say to international students that you need to be realistic, because not all international students will find a job in the U.S.,” Lee said. “You need to prepare and figure out what is the deadline, what is your plan B, and what is your strategy if your first choice does not work out.”
“I am not that against going back to China,” said He. “China is doing pretty well and there are also a lot of companies and good opportunities in China. So I can always work back home.”
Guadalupe Gracida crossed the border from Mexico into Arizona on foot. From there, she and her parents drove to New York, spending over two days in an uncomfortably crowded van, crushed in with almost 40 others.
It was a dangerous month-long journey—the family was robbed, and at one point had to hide in a safe house for over two weeks. Gracida was 14.
With hopes of a better life, her family settled in Elmhurst, Queens where she entered school and laid down an impressive track record earning A’s and B’s in her classes.
But when senior year came, the reward of higher education was not around the corner. Though she was accepted to Queensborough Community College, she could not attend. It wasn’t a valid social security number that blocked her from starting school, nor trouble with Immigration Services. Instead, she would not be entering college because her family could not afford the annual $3,600 tuition.
Gracida was partially prepared for the disappointment. “I knew it was going to be hard for me,” she said.
Her story of struggling to fulfill the dream of graduating from college is only one of many. There are approximately 345,000 undocumented students across New York. Some may never hope to sit in a university classroom, but for those that do, tuition is a main barrier.
Recent political moves however, could make it easier for Gracida and others like her to find the funds to realize their higher education ambitions.
The New York State Board of Regents voted on a resolution on November 14th “to support the extension of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to all students, regardless of immigration status,” according to the organization’s website. The decision will set off a process that could result in a new law for the Empire State. It would open taxpayer funds to undocumented students seeking higher education—a group previously barred from eligibility.
If passed, New York would join only two other states in making state aid available to immigrants living in America illegally.
Under the proposed plan, approved applicants could be awarded up to $5,000 per person per year to offset the cost of college—an amount that for many undocumented young adults could make the difference between dreams realized or repealed.
For Gracida, one of the approximately 10,000 undocumented youth who would now qualify for funds to put towards TAP-approved universities, those dreams meant majoring in psychology and taking a minor in history. She hopes to work with kids and teens in schools, to counsel them through what she sees as a troubled time in their lives.
But without the cash to pay for tuition, and college deferred till at least next year, Gracida is going down a path well-worn by undocumented youngsters—looking for low-earning jobs after high school graduation despite the potential for more.
“I’m looking for anything that comes. In this recession, nobody has jobs and with my status, I have no social security number, it is harder for me to find a good job,” she said.
Though it will be difficult to save enough money for tuition while earning low wages, Gracida is undeterred. “I believe at the end, the most important thing is my education. I am going to take the time and the resources. No matter what, I’m going to graduate one day,” she said.
Though students in New York do have a leg up over the college-bound in other states, for undocumented youth like Gracida, tuition remains out of reach. Albany allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition making it significantly more affordable. Queensborough costs a New York resident $3,600 for two full semesters of up to 18 credits. An out-of-stater would pay $5,670 for two semesters of 12 credits each.
But even $3,600 a year is unmanageable when earning under $20,000, the average annual income for Mexican Immigrants according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative, anti-immigration group.
The Education Equity for DREAMers Act, if passed through the New York State legislature, could help Gracida, and students like her, to close the gap and pay for school.
But there is a long legislative road ahead before the plan goes into effect. The resolution for a proposed bill, was passed by the Board of Regents, but the law must now be drafted by that body.
According to Natalia Aristizabal, the Youth Organizer with the immigration group, Make the Road New York, the proposed bill must then be sponsored by state leaders in both the Senate and Assembly and brought to floor of each house.
Aristizabal has been following the proposal closely and says that if everything goes smoothly, it will be introduced in Albany early in the next legislative session—perhaps as soon as January. She says it’s even possible that the bill could be voted on before February.
But opposition for the measure may rear its head. “This is a tough time for a bill like this. There’s not even enough money right now to offset tuition costs for legal, documented New Yorkers,” Republican State Senator Martin Golden said to the New York Daily News.
A version of the bill was voted down by the state legislature last March. But that potential law included big ticket, controversial elements like state drivers’ licenses and access to health care. The new iteration focuses exclusively on financial aid.
Unlike the federal bill that has languished on the Hill since 2001, the state-level law would not seek to blaze a path to citizenship for students, only help them along as they attempt to make the best of living in America without legal documentation.
This is a significant flaw of the measure according to anti-immigration advocates.
“If you say that we should legalize folks, then of course we should offer them the same public services we offer others, but the question here is, how do you justify scholarships to people who are not supposed to be here?” said Steven Camarota, Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies based in Washington, D.C..
Camarota said there is an inherent contradiction in the argument that government should help build an educated workforce when the people seeking aid are explicitly barred from holding a job in the United States. He questions the idea that undocumented students graduating from college will even be able to find better-paying work.
“It’s harder to get a job as an accountant or school teacher, a college educated job. There, they tend to check documents,” said Camarota. “It’s much easier to be a hotel maid.”
And, he said, there are opportunity costs. “If you spend money on illegal aliens that’s money you can’t spend on other things.”
Camarota said this could mean sacrificing anything from fixed pot holes to school aid for legal immigrants and native Americans.
He would call someone like Gracida a “compelling anecdote,” someone with a sympathetic story that focuses policymakers on the benefits of this kind of immigration policy.
But for Gracida, who feels like she grew up in America, who came of age in Elmhurst, this policy is not just about her.
“I am another young person who wants to succeed, not just for my family but also for my community,” she said. “There are a lot more DREAMers that they are already graduated, that they are working in many low paid jobs. And they are wasting their potential.”
The air outside Judson Memorial Church was thick with the unmistakable warning signs of an approaching thunderstorm, but inside the sanctuary, 18-year old Monica Vega stood calmly behind the podium and boldly stated that she was breaking the law.
“I am undocumented,” the teenager said, “and I am not afraid to say it. And I am going to keep fighting for the DREAM Act until it gets passed.”
Vega spoke at a Wednesday evening rally organized by the New York Immigration Coalition.
The group held the rally to both protest the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, and to reaffirm its commitment to keep fighting until the act is signed into law. The DREAM Act would provide a way for undocumented students living in the U.S. before they are 15 to apply for legal resident status, providing they graduate from high school and go on to college or the military.
The rally, which was billed as a candlelight vigil by its organizers, took place in Union Square. An ethnically diverse group of men, women and children started lining up around 6 p.m., many of them carrying hand-lettered posters and signs.
Led by Christina Baal, an immigration advocate with the NYIC, the block-long demonstration headed down University Avenue toward Washington Square and Judson Memorial, with marchers shouting “Yes to Education, No Deportation,” and “What do we want? Dream Act! When do we want it? Now!”
A man carrying a sign exhorting passing motorists to “Honk for the DREAM Act” enjoyed sporadic success, while one pedestrian muttered, “Yeah, deport them,” under his breath as he walked past.
For many, the night was a rallying cry, as an array of speakers stood up one by one to exhort the crowd not to give up and to keep fighting.
Baal’s opening comments set the general tone for the evening.
“This is not over, our dreams are not over,” he said, gripping the podium. “A vote does not decide when dreams die — we do. And we’re here today to say that they’re not dying tonight, they did not die yesterday, and they are not dying anytime soon.”
Political wrangling — heightened due to the close proximity of the Nov. 2 congressional elections — ultimately blocked the National Defense Authorization Act, traditionally a bipartisan and fairly routine package. The act, which included $752 billion in military spending, also included the DREAM Act amendment and a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from openly serving in the armed forces.
The act would have passed had Democrats secured four more votes in order to break a Republican filibuster.
Former Marine Domingo Diaz, who is gay, was discharged from the Corps after he was “outed.” Diaz is still not an American citizen, a status that would change under the DREAM Act’s servicemen provision. Diaz said he is also passionate about a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“I can go to war,” Diaz said. “I can die protecting the rights and constitutional amendments of United States citizens, but I’m still not considered one. And I think it’s appalling, I think it’s ridiculous. … All these children want is a higher education. We want a chance to better ourselves, to be productive members of society, to be able to be taxpaying citizens and help repay the massive debt this country has given itself.”
A strong current of patriotism pervaded throughout the event. “We all love America,” Vega said at one point. “And we will love America, whether or not they pass the DREAM Act.”
Leticia Amanis, executive director of La Union, a community organizing group committed to the rights of immigrants, said many don’t recognize how valuable immigrants are.
“I think New York State recognizes more the value of immigrants,” Amanis said. “But probably if we were in another state, it would be another situation.”