Oct. 6, 2011

Panelists: DREAM Act is the civil rights fight of our time

For former Cornell student Tania Peñafort, the DREAM Act is personal: At age 3, she and her mother entered the United States from Mexico with a falsified American passport. Now a legal permanent resident, Peñafort's social and political identity as a former undocumented immigrant has inspired her immigrants' rights activism, she said at an Oct. 3 panel discussion in Goldwin Smith Hall's Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium.

The event, "DREAM Act: A Pipe Dream or Eventual Reality?," explored the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act as part of the Institute for Social Sciences' immigration theme project.

The DREAM Act provides a path to legalization for undocumented youth who attend a four-year U.S. college or university or serve in the U.S. military. Although the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the DREAM Act in December 2010, the bill died in the U.S. Senate, yet has since been re-introduced.

"DREAMers" are an integral part of the national activist movement that the panelists called the civil rights fight of our time.

Panelist Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at the School of Social Services Administration at the University of Chicago, whose research follows 150 young immigrant adults living in Los Angeles since 2003, emphasized that the Supreme Court ruling in the landmark case Plyler v. Doe (1982) allows undocumented children to attend public schools. While parents participate in the underground economy and socialize with other immigrants, their children are integrated into the American public school system, he said.

"They do all the things that American kids are doing, but at 16 or 17 years old they start to realize their legal limitations," Gonzales said. "The process is like waking up to a nightmare."

The many champions of the DREAM Act include the business community, organized labor and such university presidents as Cornell's David Skorton, said Gonzales. However, as Peñafort noted, critics contend that the legislation will spur more immigration and take jobs and public resources away from Americans during a time of economic hardship.

Also debated was the controversy regarding how immigrants have broken the law by entering the country without documents. One audience member asked, "Is it an injustice to not give in-state tuition to a person who is not supposed to be in the United States at all?"

Responded Peñafort: "Whether you're undocumented or not ... [we are] losing people who want to contribute to society and ... creating an impoverished and uneducated underclass. I think you're not seeing what the outcome of that would mean."

Panelist Josh Bernstein, director of immigration strategy and policy at the Service Employees International Union, added that college graduates pay double in federal income taxes compared with high school graduates and are incarcerated at the low rate of 0.1 percent.

Panelist Katharine Gin, co-founder and executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, focuses on stopgap measures to assist undocumented students. Her organization addresses their financial, legal, career/professional and socio-emotional needs with a holistic approach that recognizes how "all these needs are wrapped up together," she said.

Peñafort concluded with the words she said in front of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's office in New York City when the DREAM Act failed: "Hello. Do you know who we are? We are undocumented youth ... marginalized by this debilitating status but empowered nonetheless by realizing we are not alone. And so, we are unafraid."

Erica Rhodin '12 is a student writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.