Noe never doubted that he was a U.S. citizen. Growing up in New Haven, Missouri, Noe was an exemplary student and athlete. He made the honor roll every semester, ran for the cross-country team, and was a member of the student council and the Future Business Leaders of America. The world was his oyster, and Noe seemed headed for success until he applied for the U.S. Marine Corps. When he went to enlist, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement handcuffed and shackled his feet, informing Noe that he had used a Social Security number belonging to someone else. For the first time, it dawned on Noe that he might not be a U.S. citizen after all. He was indeed undocumented and had no memory of Mexico, a country he had left at the age of three.
Within the United States, 2.8 million undocumented youth can fall prey to this scenario. Every year, an estimated 65,000 students who graduate from high school lack legal citizenship. Many of these graduates immigrated to the United States with their families at young ages. They grew up as Americans and, every morning in class, pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag. They learned about the country’s ideas of freedom and liberty valued by the founding fathers. These young adults watched the same cartoons, listened to the same music, and fell for the same fashion trends as their American peers. And now they want to go college just like their friends. But as undocumented immigrants, many of these young people can be derailed from pursuing these dreams.
Status-quo U.S. immigration laws currently seek to deport award-winning young student artists like Meynardo Garcia,1 keep aspiring artists such as “Moreno”2 in the closet, render young adults with “legal” parents stateless, and close the doors of opportunity to countless others after high school simply because they do not have a nine-digit Social Security number and a green card. These immigrant youth were brought to the United States by their parents and have grown up American; they want to go to college and contribute to society but cannot because of their legal status. For most of them, the only way to adjust their status is through the DREAM Act.
First introduced in 2002, the bipartisan federal legislation known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would provide a path to legal residency for young people brought here as children who fulfill certain requirements, such as graduating from high school, attending college, or serving in the military and maintaining good moral character. The bill fell short by just eight votes of reaching cloture in 2007 but has since been revived—and with growing support.
Currently, many undocumented youth feel completely hopeless: assuming that going to college or joining the military are not even options because of the financial and legal obstacles involved. The DREAM Act would give undocumented youth the right to self-determination: to choose their futures. Giving DREAM Act students a path to citizenship would strengthen the immigrant-rights movement by legalizing a politicized, college-educated group of immigrants who have valuable skills to contribute to the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
It has been three months since the reintroduction of the DREAM Act, and the legislation has accrued 22 cosponsors in the Senate,3 more than 70 in the House4 and a stream of endorsements from officials, including the president, the vice president, and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.5 Nontraditional sources of support have also come from labor and faith-based groups as well as big business.
Even Microsoft can see the benefits of undocumented students. “The DREAM Act reinforces and protects America’s substantial investments in the education of its youth, and ensures that America will reap the benefits of those investments,” wrote Fred Humphries, the managing director of U.S. government affairs at Microsoft in a letter to Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. “The DREAM Act rewards those who place high value on education, on hard work, and on service to country. Opening the door to the best intellectual resources our country can muster is essential to our future strength.”
Microsoft is not alone in recognizing the talent and potential of undocumented students; 18 other businesses in New York, including the News Corporation (owner of Fox Broadcasting), have endorsed the DREAM Act.
Students at the University of Florida; Wayne State University; the University of Washington; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Temple University; and other colleges throughout the United States have passed resolutions in favor of the DREAM Act. Presidents at Harvard, Stanford, the University of California, Berkley, and other top universities have declared support for the legislation. Even city councils are not far behind, having passed resolutions in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland.
The Role of Nonprofits in Immigrant Employment and Integration
Given the grassroots energy and drive for the DREAM Act from nontraditional sources such as big business, where do nonprofit organizations fit into the equation of providing professional development and integrating immigrants?
In this article, we trace the lives of undocumented immigrant students who have worked in nonprofits to gain professional experience. Through advocacy work for the DREAM Act, these immigrant several undocumented students have become lifelong organizers and gained important skills that are beneficial to nonprofits by helping serve the needs of communities previously marginalized and underserved. Nonprofits have benefited from these relationships as well. With the economic downturn, escalating costs, diminishing resources, and increasing competition have created immense quandaries for the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit support for the DREAM Act and undocumented student advocacy ensure sustained civic and nonprofit sector participation from the immigrant community.
This year, before Tam began graduate school, she participated in a national program that provides internship opportunities to youth interested in working in the nonprofit sector. Tam spent a year at a labor-rights organization in downtown Los Angeles, where her responsibilities included working on issues that affect undocumented immigrant youth. Her activities included outreach to teachers, counselors, administrators, and students at the high-school and college level as well as educating community organizations about the growing population of undocumented immigrant youth and the obstacles posed by illegal status. During her internship, Tam heard many stories from undocumented students. Many young immigrants recalled having discovered their undocumented status when inquiring about their Social Security number to their parents so that they could fill out their college applications, only to find out that they never had one and could not obtain one. While a Social Security number is not necessary to apply to college, undocumented students are discouraged to discover that they do not qualify for financial aid or loans, which does require one. And when these students realize that their legal status bars them from working to pay for their education or from obtaining a driver’s license to commute to school, attending college seems nearly impossible. And without a way to legalize their status even when they do complete their degrees, the inability to make use of an education renders the whole idea of obtaining one pointless.
As a recent graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles, Tam didn’t find it difficult to understand the challenges that these undocumented youth had experienced. As with the stories of many undocumented youth in America, Tam’s immigration story begins with her parents. Her father escaped as a “boat person,” the term given to the thousands who fled from Vietnam during the late 1970s. As it waited out at sea, her father’s boat was rescued by a German ship. He later sponsored his wife’s journey to Germany, and the couple began a family there. Tam and her brother spent their early years in Germany until 1989, when the family moved to the United States. That same year, her father’s older sister obtained her U.S. citizenship to sponsor the journey of the rest of her siblings to America from Vietnam. Tam’s father decided that the family should move to the United States to join the rest of the family. Upon arriving in the United States, Tam’s family applied for political asylum. After waiting for 12 years, the courts denied their request. Because they were able to prove fear of persecution, the family was not ordered to Vietnam; instead the family was given a deportation order to Germany and had to leave within 30 days. But when Tam’s father went to the German consulate to request passports, he was told that his family was ineligible for travel documents because they were not German. Without a country to return to and after exhausting the process of legalization, Tam’s family had run out of options. The family’s only option was to continue to call the United States its home, even though it was