Immigration Reform: A Time for DREAMers


Written by Bill Ong Hing
Dream ActImmigration rights activist and undocumented immigrant Isabel Castillo leads a march supporting the DREAM Act. Castillo is the youngest person to ever receive an honorary doctorate from USF (See sidebar). Photo by Steve Pavey.

Now that the presidential elections are over and the dust has settled, there is no better time to take up the issue of broad immigration reform, and no better place to begin than with the DREAM Act.

A bipartisan group of legislators first introduced the bill in Congress more than a decade ago, and we are still awaiting its passage. Like many Americans, they recognized that the would-be beneficiaries, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children and grew up as Americans, are in a position to contribute mightily to our nation socially and economically and should be granted a path to citizenship. I agree.

Fighting Tirelessly for Immigration Reform

When immigration rights activist Isabel Castillo accepted an honorary doctorate from USF last year, she was the picture of promise: young, articulate, and educated. At 26, she was also the youngest-ever recipient of the award in university history. 

The honorary degree, she says, brought a spike in media attention and interest in her work fighting for the DREAM Act. But in the way that counts the most, nothing much has changed.

“Unfortunately, because I’m undocumented, I still can’t work legally,” said Castillo, who was born in Mexico and continues to work off the books as a waitress in Harrisonburg, Va., where she has lived since she was 6. “So things are kind of the same in that way.”

But so are the courage, determination, and grit for which USF honored her last year. The DREAMer who got arrested and risked deportation for staging a sit-in at Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s office is as committed as ever to fighting for the DREAM Act. 

As an activist, Castillo is visible, vocal, and fearless. She has debated immigration policy with Virginia’s governor and shares her story widely. She also works with other activists and lawyers to provide assistance to immigrants facing deportation.

Castillo says the DREAM Act is her best hope for a pathway to citizenship and a chance to fully contribute to the country she’s called home since childhood. 

Castillo doesn’t have that chance despite her stellar academic record. She earned a 4.0 GPA in high school and graduated from college magna cum laude with a degree in social work—while working long hours waiting tables. But without a Social Security number, she couldn’t get a job, and her degree was useless. 

In June, President Barack Obama created a program that grants eligible DREAMers a two-year work permit and reprieve from deportation. Castillo is “cautiously optimistic” about the program, but she and other immigration reform advocates hope that Congress will ultimately pass a long-term solution like the DREAM Act.

“Our nation’s history is replete with civil rights legislation that was initially defeated but ultimately became law,” said USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. “With an advocate such as Isabel Castillo, the University of San Francisco is confident that justice, fairness, and compassion will eventually prevail.”

These youths call themselves “DREAMers,” and providing them a path to citizenship is in their best interest, and ours as well. They make up a highly educated and potentially high-income earning group that can contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy across diverse industries. A study by the UCLA North American Integration and Development Center estimates they would earn between $1.4 and $3.6 trillion over the course of their working lives.

A larger supply of skilled students would also increase U.S. global competitiveness in science, technology, medicine, education, and many other fields. The Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2010 that the productivity of DREAMers would help reduce the U.S. deficit by $1.4 to $2.2 billion between 2011-20.

Catholic leaders across the country also support the legislation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on all Catholics to support the bill through prayer and education, because allowing everyone to reach their God-given potential is fundamental to promoting the common good. 

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, describes the DREAM Act as “a practical, fair, and compassionate solution for thousands of young persons” who should be rewarded for their hard work and motivation. “Those who would benefit,” he offered, “are talented, intelligent, and dedicated young persons… They can become some of the future leaders of our country, provided we are wise enough to provide them the opportunity to pursue their dreams.” 

In 2011, USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., awarded an honorary doctoral degree to Isabel Castillo, a young DREAMer who couldn’t get a job despite graduating from college magna cum laude, and from high school with a 4.0 GPA. (See sidebar). This is a terrible waste of talent, the kind that could give our country a competitive edge.

Many want DREAMers removed from American public schools, but that is a mistake. I’m reminded of the important words of the Supreme Court in its 1982 case, Plyler v. Doe, which struck down legislation that denied public school access to undocumented youth:

“[M]any of the undocumented children disabled by this classification will remain in this country indefinitely, and …some will become lawful residents or citizens of the United States. It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”  

DREAMers are in the U.S. because their parents also have a dream: to make an honest living for an honest day’s work, to put food on the table, to be part of a safe community, to instill strong family values, and to send their children to school in hopes of a better tomorrow. This deserves our respect. This is what we all want.

In one positive move, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in June that granted eligible DREAMers a two-year reprieve from deportation and temporary work permits. While this is a step in the right direction, it is a temporary fix. We need a long-term solution. 

That solution, the DREAM Act, seemingly faces a substantial political challenge. It occupies a tenuous middle ground: some accuse it of being too limited in scope, while others charge that it is too far-reaching, essentially amounting to an “amnesty.” But one post-election analysis after another concludes that Latino voters contributed greatly to President Obama’s re-election and that Republicans would be smart to tone down their anti-immigrant rhetoric in the future. If that’s the case, then the DREAM Act presents the perfect opening. 

With the election over, the time has come to cast the bickering aside. The DREAM Act has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past, and there are ample moral and economic imperatives for all members of Congress to finally do the right thing. The vast majority of Americans not only understand the value that immigrants bring to our shores but also believe that our energy is better spent pursuing reasonable approaches. 

We will be better as a civil society for passing the DREAM Act.

Bill Ong Hing is a professor in the School of Law and the founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. He serves as chair of the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission.


What is the DREAM Act?

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) could provide a path to lawful, permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship for undocumented youth who satisfy the following requirements: They must be 31 or younger, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years (continuously) prior to the bill’s enactment, have arrived in the U.S. as minors, be graduates of a U.S. high school, serve two years in the military or complete at least two years at a four-year college, and have “good moral character.”

The Migration Policy Institute estimates the law could affect 1.76 million DREAMers.

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