Is the DREAM over???...
Forty-eight hours. That is what comes to mind when I think about my immigration experience. I had just begun my second term of boarding school (Form 2A). Slowly letting go of memories of being home and reluctantly getting into the strict routine of carrying out tasks in synchrony with the timing of the school bell. It was a sunny cloudless day, the bell had just struck for afternoon recess. In the courtyard, there was a flurry of red skirts and peach blouses. Shrieks of glee as friends from different classrooms embraced each other and joyfully took off walking hastily in the direction of their respective dormitories. I was elated at the much welcomed relief from another long lecture and could not wait to dig in to a nice bowl of soaked garri and groundnuts. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by a voice - “Sharon, your father is looking for you?”- I hesitated for a moment, thinking to myself “It cannot be… Papa just dropped me off at the beginning of the school term. Why is he here?”. Within 48 hours, I was at the airport in Douala, Cameroon bidding goodbye to my family and being handed off to a lady I did not know who was to escort me to America. Forty-eight hours later, my Air France flight landed at Washington Dulles International Airport. So began my American immigrant experience fourteen years ago.
I am fortunate to have all my immediate family with me in America. The immigration door was opened for us when my mother won a green card through the diversity lottery (DV) program. As a dependent I automatically qualified. For me, the green card is not just a symbol of my legal status. It means having access and I equate it to freedom. Access to school loans and/or scholarships to pursue higher education and no international travel restrictions because I am legally recognized as a resident of the United States. In a sense, enjoying almost the same privileges as an American citizen except the right to vote in any political election.
A little over 5 years ago, I had a conversation with a friend that sadly reminded me of the power of one’s status in the United States. She had received the dreaded phone call that her mother had died. My friend was trapped in America. Without papers, leaving meant a high probability of being unable to return. After hanging up the phone, her words – “My mama has left this world” – kept echoing in my mind. It seemed so unfair to me. She, like so many others, was brought to America at a young age by family members who believed in the opportunities that are available in the Unites States. Being in the United States would mean a chance to receive a proper education, health care, good food, not worrying about being kidnapped or assaulted. These families believe that in America, their children can grow up to get a job that will allow them to raise funds to send back to their home countries and perhaps elevate their families’ status. Children like my friend are often selected to travel to America, even when the rest of the family cannot afford to come, because of the assurance of a promising future.
Unbeknownst to many parents, there is often one sizable limitation: the lack of a legal status. Often, such individuals don’t even realize what their status is until after their high school graduation, when they are prevented from progressing in their academic studies. I can only imagine filling out college board applications and FAFSA (Free application for federal student aid) – sharing with friends in the excitement of this whole process, and wondering “Which school will accept me, and how much tuition aid will I be awarded?” – only to find out later that the sole reason for disqualification was not a lack of scholastic competitiveness but because of being in America illegally.
Sadly, heart-breaking experiences like this one never make it to the forefront of policy making. Of concern to those involved in the immigration reform struggle is the mere fact of illegal immigrants sneaking into the country. What about families who have to endure living in separation? Sometimes, as in my friend’s circumstances, a tragic situation in which families come together to heal and console one another is a grim reminder of some of the unspoken pains of immigration. The children caught in this situation – unable to leave the country to care for sick family members or grieve for those lost – typically have very limited ties, or even none at all, to extended family members in their country of origin. Any immigration reform law will significantly affect the lives of families.
Perhaps someday the U.S. legislature will pass comprehensive immigration reform that will be considerate of families like my friend’s. Unfortunately, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act) legislation proposal was once again passed over by the U.S. Senate in December 2010. The DREAM Act states that an undocumented or illegal youth is eligible for a conditional path to citizenship either by completing 2 years in an institute of higher learning or 2 years service in the military. Approximately 65,000 youth are unable to pursue their dreams and realize their life goals because of their undocumented status. Since its first introduction in 2001 during the 107th congress, the DREAM Act has been passed over up until the 110th congress in December 2010. I believe this Act would allow youth who have come to call America home the opportunity to work towards their dreams and grow up to be contributing members of its society.
The United States of America was founded by immigrants and over its 235 yrs of existence, it is continuously enriched and shaped at its very core by immigrants just like when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Immigrants often embark on a quest for freedom from injustice, new economic opportunities, educational aspirations and professional advancements. They also often tend to retain their national and ethnic identities that add and sometimes transforms the communities into which they immigrate.
Even though the DREAM ACT has been continuously passed over by the U.S. government, there has been mass mobilization, rallying support for comprehensive immigration reform. For example, The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America was an impressively launched mass mobilization nationwide movement, organizing over 100 events in 28 states. The Reform Immigration FOR America campaign was launched by a coalition composed of over 700 faith, labor, business, progressive, and immigration reform groups unified to raise awareness in communities across America about immigration reform and support the passage of a comprehensive legislation. The 2010 campaign included town hall meetings, marches, vigils, and other rallies across America. One of such rallies took place in my former state of residence Virginia. Teresa Stanley, of the Virginia Organizing Project, implored that “we want action from our elected leaders. Too many Virginian families are feeling the effects of a severe recession, and comprehensive immigration reform will put us on the road to economic recovery. We need reform now.”
Polling data released by America’s Voice, a group that conducts public opinion research and provides communications on immigration reform, demonstrated that most Americans supported comprehensive immigration reform, including 69% of Democrats, 67% of Independents, and 62% of Republicans. Additionally, even comments by conservatives who supported the DREAM Act suggest a compassionate understanding of the immigrant’s life. Linda Chavez, an official in Reagan’s administration and now a conservative political commentator, made a powerful plea for just immigration reform: “Do Republicans really want to tell young people who have lived here most of their lives, who may speak no other language but English, and who are even willing to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield for the protection of all Americans: ‘We don't want you’?”
Some critics argue that immigration reform will be economically costly. But evidence points to a different conclusion. The Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy Center published an economic report entitled “Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform“ which highlights that implementing comprehensive immigration reform would bolster the U.S. economy. Research conducted by Dr. Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, founding director of the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrates that creating “a legalization process for unauthorized workers would, in the long term (10 years) yield $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product, and in the short term (3 years) generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional tax revenue and consumer spending sufficient to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs”. Most of the children that enter the United State illegally tend to be accompanied by illegal guardians or guardians whose visa status has expired. Additionally, providing a legitimate legalization process in which immigrant families can work and live peaceably in the United States would prevent the huge cost of deporting the illegal immigrants, of which there are currently 12million living in the United States.
Most immigrants are either starting over, establishing their families, or taking advantage of better opportunities, and are typically law-abiding. The diversity immigrants bring to their communities makes America beautiful and rich in culture. The improvements that immigration reform would bring to America are not limited to immigrants themselves; we stand to be a better country by adopting a more generous immigration policy. Allowing for more streamlined immigration regulations would provide national safety from implementing systematic screening processes, increases economic growth due to more consumer spending, and homegrown innovative technologies from intellectuals being afforded the opportunity to learn and work in America. Further, immigration reform will preserve the most important fabric of our society and key to national development – the family. Families united whether geographically or just being able to travel across borders internationally. I will forever remain hopeful that immigration reform will come to pass in America.
Which is why, in my own way I join in the fight to educate others about the immigrants’ experience. Through a personal endeavor the “Threads of Our Fabric Project”, I seek to capture the voices of African women and girls sharing stories of their lives wherever life has planted them. My focus in the United States is on young African ladies (15-24) uniting to share, empower, and support each other through their unique immigrant experience. Perhaps if more understood the reason why we migrate and on occasion the dire necessity of leaving some of our circumstances, just maybe there is hope for comprehensive immigration reform. Until better legislation is instituted, my heart carries these words from Dr. King “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.