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Who are the DREAMers?

February 5, 2012

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) provides a path to legal citizenship for those who were brought to the U.S. as minors. It has been introduced in every session of Congress for the past ten years, and the most recent version was introduced in the 112th Congress on May 11, 2011 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D – Nevada).

For an individual who entered the U.S. on or before his or her 15th birthday, provided other criteria are met, the Act provides a six year conditional residency and, then, according to the summary

[a]uthorizes the Secretary to remove the conditional basis of an alien’s permanent resident status if the alien: (1) has demonstrated good moral character; (2) is not inadmissible under specified grounds; (3) has not abandoned U.S. residency; (4) has earned an IHE [Institute of Higher Education] degree (or has completed at least two years in a bachelor’s or higher degree program) in the United States, or has served in the Armed Forces for at least two years (and if discharged, was honorably discharged); and (5) has provided a list of each secondary school attended in the United States.

In his remarks in the Congressional Record, introducing the bill, Senator Richard Durbin (D – Illinois) said

[T]his is a simple piece of legislation, but it is one that affects thousands of people across America. It came  to my attention 10 years ago when a Korean-American woman called me in my Chicago office and told me she had a problem.

She had come to the United States about 18 years before and brought her little girl with her. She had raised a family. She was now a naturalized citizen. The children who were born in the United States were citizens. But her older daughter was in a different status. Her older daughter was a special person. Her older daughter was a concert pianist who had been accepted at the Julliard School of Music in New York, the best. As she filled out the application form, and they asked for her citizenship,  she turned to her mom and said: USA, right?

And her mom said: You know, we never filed any papers for you.

So the little girl said: What should we do?

And her mom said: We ought to call Durbin.

So they called my office, thinking I could solve this. I found out the awful truth. Our laws currently say the only recourse for that little girl–who came here at the age of 2, who grew up in the United States, going to school here, saying the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag every morning, singing the only national anthem she knew, speaking the only language she knew–under our law could never be a U.S. citizen and had to leave our country.

What is wrong with this? Well, it is unfair. That is what is wrong. At 2 years of age, she had no voice in the decision of her family to come here. She had done everything right. All she was asking for, all she continues to ask for, is a chance to be part of the only country she has ever known, a country she dearly loves.

The DREAM Act gives young people that chance. It says: You can have a chance if you graduate high school, have no criminal record involving anything of a serious nature, if you are prepared go through and prove that you have been in the United States, came before the age of 16, been here at least 5 years, then you will have a chance to apply. If you apply, you have two ways that you can reach legal status in our country: Serve in our military, or complete at least 2 years of college. For thousands  of young people across America, this is the only way to get them out of their current situation.

We just had a press conference with Senator Harry Reid and Senator Bob Menendez, as well as Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut to reintroduce this DREAM Act. At that press conference was a young woman who told her story. Like thousands of others it is a compelling personal story. Her name is Tolu Olubunmi. She was born in Nigeria and brought to the United States as a child. She graduated her high school with honors. She was awarded  a full scholarship to one of the Nation’s top universities. In college, she was a leader: a peer counselor, a resident assistant, a volunteer in an abused women’s shelter, and a research analyst in the department of engineering.

Tolu received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2002. But she has never been able to work 1 day as a chemical engineer in America because she is undocumented.

She cannot leave this country, because she could not return. She cannot get a job in this country because she is undocumented. Her whole life is focused on America. She is asking for a chance to be an engineer, to be a productive part of America, to move us forward as a nation. The DREAM Act would give her that chance.

Local newspapers across the country have written about individuals who would benefit from the DREAM Act if it were passed. Today’s Seattle Times profiles a Central Washington University Student, Al Okere, who lives under a threat of deportation to Nigeria. He and his mother fled the country after his father, a prominent journalist critical of the government, had been assassinated. Today Mr. Okere is a pre-med student studying biology at the university and hoping that, by going public with his story, he can persuade the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to exercise prosecutorial discretion and defer action in his case to allow him to stay in the United States.

Not only has his story circulated in the local media, but he posted a moving You Tube video, telling his story through notecards. Mr. Okere’s attorney, Andrew Chan, is hoping for a favorable exercise of discretion by ICE.

“If the stay is granted they will not remove him for the time being,” Chan said.

Okere has been able to stay here the last few years because of prosecutorial discretion, Chan said.

“Bottom line, there’s no immediate eligibility for relief for Al right now other than deferred action,” Chan said.

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