The Undocumented American Dream

Antonio Alvarez knew he wanted to go to the University of California, Los Angeles the first time he set eyes on the towering columns of the library during an elementary school field trip. But as an undocumented immigrant -- his parents took him and his two siblings to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 4 years old -- he knew that dream was a far reach.

Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative passed in 1994, threatened his access to a public education, and driver's license laws threatened his father's livelihood delivering pizza. Despite the fact that every day was both a financial and logistical struggle, Antonio managed to thrive academically, getting almost a 4.0 throughout high school. He decided to spend his first two years at a community college so he could save money while attending classes and working at a supermarket.

Finally, it was time to apply to UCLA. When he got that fat envelope in the mail signifying his admission, he knew his dream had finally come true. But, of course, like all dreams achieved, his proved more complicated than he had hoped. Unlike so many of his peers, Antonio must continue to work throughout the school year. He can't apply for any job that requires a background check, for fear of being discovered. He writes, "When I apply for jobs that I know I am overqualified for… I experience strong feelings of detachment and frustration, followed by hints of helplessness. I work these jobs to pay for a college experience that does not include semesters abroad and living in a dorm and other experiences that 'normal' students have."

UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education released a book last Wednesday called Underground Undergrads, a collection of eight moving stories about the experiences of undocumented immigrant college students, like Antonio, in their own words. Undocumented students are a flashpoint in the large and complex immigration debate raging across this country. According to Hate Free Zone, a Seattle-based immigrant-rights organization, the foreign-born population in America has tripled in the past four decades to a total of about 37 million people. Approximately 10 million to 12 million of them are undocumented.

As journalist Douglas McGray wrote last year in his beautiful portrait of UCLA's undocumented students for the LA Weekly: "Until the 1980s, illegal immigrants were mostly migrant workers, far more likely to have children waiting at home in another country than waiting at school for a ride home from softball practice. The undocumented American, born in another country but raised here from a young age, is a modern phenomenon."

These young people, who have grown up playing Transformers and speaking English on American playgrounds, don't fit with the most common anti-immigrant stereotypes. They are just kids, innocent, wide-eyed, and hungry to belong. Reflecting on their rights has the potential to soften even the most dogmatic of perspectives on immigration, and further, hearing the voices of these young adults first-hand complicates the narrative about who the majority of undocumented immigrants really are and what they really want.

Perhaps if we can begin to better understand our nation's undocumented children, we will be able to better understand their parents as well. Perhaps if we can read their stories -- complete with law-school aspirations, exhausted mothers who work as nannies, and long nights home on city buses -- these images can replace the impersonal "other" depicted by the nightly news with images of giant fences, patrol officers, and nameless workers packed like sardines in truck beds.

It's no surprise that the nation's first anthology about/by undocumented college students came out of California, which has a huge immigrant population and is one of nine states to pass a law that guarantees students who attended at least three years of high school in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

Some of the best and brightest undocumented students have now earned a place at institutions of higher education like UCLA and UC Berkeley. Many of them (in their ample free time between service jobs, baby-sitting duty at home, and schoolwork) have even organized clubs to educate school administrators and fellow undocumented students about their rights. The group on the UCLA campus is called IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), and it has about 30 students who regularly attend.

These are kids who want to be doctors, lawyers, and public servants. They have overcome tremendous obstacles -- language barriers, long commutes, poverty, abuse at work -- to earn the privilege of sitting in overcrowded lecture halls, and unlike so many college students, they are fully, painfully aware of what a privilege it is.

And when these students leave school, they face a world hostile to their status. "Graduation for many of my friends isn't a rite of passage to becoming a responsible adult," writes 24-year-old Tam Tran. "Rather, it is the last phase in which they can feel a sense of belonging as an American. As an American university student, my friends feel a part of an American community -- which they are living out the American dream among their peers. But after graduation, they will be left behind by their American friends as my friends are without the prospect of obtaining a job that will utilize the degree they've earned; my friends will become just another undocumented immigrant."

This needless alienation and wasted talent is the "true tragedy," to borrow a phrase from anti-immigration pundit Lou Dobbs. (Dobbs uses the phrase to describe the vague horror that "awaits us" if we reform immigration laws.)

In truth, even some of the most anti-immigrant hawks, like Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, have come to see the virtue of granting legal status to students like those in the IDEAS club. In 2001, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah teamed up to introduce the DREAM Act (The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), which would provide high-achieving undocumented immigrant high school students who are long-term residents, and who wish to serve in the armed forces or attend college, with the ability to gain legal status. The bill, in various incarnations, has been considered by both the House and the Senate, most recently last October, when it fell just eight votes short of overcoming a filibuster. Even sympathetic Democratic leadership now predicts that the DREAM Act is unlikely to be considered again until 2009.

Given the fact that this is legislation designed to remove obstacles facing hard-working students, many of whom have gone to American schools their entire lives, it may seem hard to make a sound argument against it. But, of course, many have tried. Dan Stein, executive director of the anti-immigration group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said in 2003, "At a time when most middle-class families in this country are concerned about whether they are going to be able to provide a college education for their own kids, Senator Hatch comes along with a bill that will require them to subsidize a college education for an untold number of illegal aliens."

In fact, this is not an either/or situation. The students lucky enough to know some of these undocumented immigrants in their high school classrooms were probably inspired by their dedicated example. Those who share classrooms with them at UCLA aren't getting less tuition help because of them; in fact, the entire university community is strengthened by having a more talented, more diverse pool from which to draw. If people in that ever-amorphous category of "middle-class families" are really worried about getting their kids into college, they should be targeting elite Americans who have made expensive SAT prep courses, private tutors, and legacy advantage par for the course in competitive college admissions. Those are the real culprits eroding the American dream of equal access to higher education.

According to public opinion polls, a majority of Americans approve of creating ways for undocumented immigrants to become official. A Los Angeles Times poll in 2007, for example, found that 60 percent of registered voters favored a proposal that would allow all, not just student, illegal immigrants (without criminal records) to start on a path to citizenship.

And yet the Heritage Foundation's Kris W. Kobach claims, "The DREAM Act is a nightmare… This amnesty opens a wide path to citizen¬ship for any alien who entered the country before the age of 16 and has been in the country for at least five years. The guiding notion seems to be 'The longer you have violated federal law, the better.'"

Kobach, in other words, believes we should punish wide-eyed, hard-working 18-year-olds because they didn't, at the age of two, prevent their parents from breaking American law in pursuit of a better life? That makes about as much sense as punishing adult children for their parents' tax evasion 15 years ago (that is if the tax evasion were necessary to keep the family afloat, escape violence, and/or fulfill the potential for a better future). I certainly wouldn't want to be held responsible for my parents' clothing decisions in the early 1980s, let alone their most important life choices.

The truth is that many of these young people have never known any other home but America. They've never dreamed any other dreams but those that manifest in American law schools and science labs. Some of them have never even spoken a language fluently other than American English (for better or worse).

And they don't just need America. America needs them. We have always benefited from the ingenuity, passion, and dedication of immigrants. It is the zeitgeist that has animated our American story for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the other part of that story is one of xenophobia, state-endorsed relocation and violence, and fear. I'd prefer to tell the former version this time around. Wouldn't you?

Antonio Alvarez will graduate next month from UCLA with a dual degree in sociology and Chicano studies. His goal -- after holding that hard-earned college diploma in his hand -- is to find "a career in helping others, specifically individuals whose voices were muted in society." Until this country recognizes his citizenship, however, he won't be eligible for jobs that require a Social Security number; his dream -- our so-called American dream -- will be, once again, deferred.