Keep DREAMin': Immigration Reform Ain't Gonna Happen Soon

The DREAMers are sleeping better this week.  This week’s passing of the Illinois DREAM Act allows undocumented high-school graduates, who have attended high school for at least three years, to apply for privately funded college scholarships.  Anyone with a taxpayer or Social Security number can also enroll in a state-run college-savings program.  Furthermore, high-school counselors must provide college information to immigrant children.

Although fundraising is just starting and although this does not pave the way toward legal residency for undocumented students, as the federal DREAM Act bill does, this law does provide promising opportunities so students fulfill their dream of attending college.  Nothing is being handed to them.This victory also emphasizes another important point: U.S. immigration reform can only happen if it is linked to other efforts
that will benefit this country.  Immigration reform for its own sake does not stand a chance.

A July 27 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) press release highlighted their survey results: "Immigration overwhelmingly trumps both the economy and education as the most important issue for Latinos, according to a recent poll of 547 supporters and attendees at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference. Almost half (45 percent) of all respondents chose immigration as the top issue, as opposed to jobs and the economy (25 percent), education (21 percent), and health care (6 percent).”

I challenge NCLR’s interpretation of generalizing immigration as the priority for Latinos.  It’s not.  It’s a priority.  Besides the fact that this is a tiny poll for a national organization, NCLR’s results are distracting us from issues that can be won.  The Latino community, with many other groups, has worked to promote immigration reform for the last decade.  While I believe in this reform, while I support these efforts, immigration reform will not happen before the 2012 presidential election.  Quite simply, Obama needs to guarantee his second term.  If he pushes immigration reform with the same zeal he used for health-care reform, he’ll likely be  a one-term president.  A republican will replace him.

What NCLR should be promoting more is education reform—like the Illinois DREAM Act—that can be won and can change immigrants’ lives.  As of 10:00 a.m. on August 3, NCLR’s press releases still made no mention of Illinois’ accomplishment, further proving NCLR’s disconnect from true Latino issues and the Midwest experience.

What we also need to realize is that there is not enough of an incentive for the U.S. to pass immigration reform now.

This fall will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  The anti-immigrant force will be strong and the reasoning senseless.  Not even Captain America could extinguish the generalizations and exaggerations that will be flung like fireballs at uncorrupted undocumented immigrants.  Immigration reform in and of itself cannot pass, no matter how many times we shout, “YES, YOU CAN!”

The struggling economy and high unemployment rate are other obstacles that fuel the anti-immigrant force.  Opposition leaders will say, “Reform
immigration so more people can compete for jobs that are hard to find?  No way.”

Even if we imagine for a moment that immigration reform does pass soon (let’s pretend), it still will not solve the Latino educational crisis in this country.  We know that approximately 50% of Latinos drop out of high school.  According U.S. Census stats, in 2008 about two million Latinos enrolled in college compared to about twelve million white students.  In Chicago, not one high school in a predominately Latino neighborhood exists with the words “college prep” in its title.  When I taught at a top selective-enrollment high school a few of years ago, I realized that there were only about one hundred low-income Latino students enrolled in a school of about 750 students.

Every year, according to commonly used stats, approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools (about 2% of each year’s graduating classes).  But not all of these undocumented students are Latino.

While immigration reform alone will grant legal residency to many Latinos, it will not guarantee success or political influence.  Citizenship and voting turnout will require additional efforts.  Education reform, on the other hand, has a better chance of changing our communities’ futures.  We must remember, there is not one Latino community.  The Mexican experience in this country is very different from the Puerto Ricans’, from the Cubans’, from the Dominicans’, from the Columbians’, and keep on going for all twenty-one Latin American countries.  Even in Chicago, the 18th Street Latino experience is not the same as the one on 26th Street.  As one of my students once said, “It’s the same but it’s different.”  This
diversity is what keeps immigration reform from becoming the Latino priority.  Our poor Latino education experience,  however, affects the entire country.  And reforming this system will benefit everyone.  A better education for Latinos will produce  non-debatable gains:

--We can increase high-school graduation rates and job readiness.

--We can decrease the number of Latinos on public assistance.

--We can change college enrollment and degree completion stats.

--We can educate Latinos about better health care options and lifestyle choices.

--We can make better financial decisions that will lead to long-term stability.

--We can convince ourselves that civic involvement has an impact.

--We can change this country’s cultural capital so our experiences mean more than a few pesos.

--Finally, we can push more educated people into policy-making positions to lead immigration reform, not stand behind it.

On August 3, President Obama will celebrate his 50th birthday at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.  I know some immigration-reform advocates will
be “welcoming” him with chants of “Yes, You Can!”  I wonder, though, if we’re hurting our own progress by asking for the impossible this term.

Originally published August 1, 2011 on Ray's first blog.  A version of this appeared in the Chicago Tribune's "Voice of the People" section on August 9.

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  • Saying "undocumented" sounds like a slick way to avoid the real translation of "illegal." So when an illegal breaks the law, they can get rewards, and even though these are so-called "privately funded grant programs" once again an illegal is breaking the law by stealing this money from a true citizen! This is what a lot of folks are thinking, but I would think that addressing the laws that seem to make it so difficult for a person to become legal is the real issue.

    Maybe that's were we should be looking. Oh, and for the comment that "nothing is being handed to them" let's take a look here, they are "undocumented/illegal", their schooling is paid for by "legal" citizens, so they are breaking the law there as well, during their younger years, and throughout high-school, they have been taking advantage of the US system "illegally!" Don't you think that they should have tried to attain legal status at some point in their lives without now having to proudly claim "illegal" but give me money for college!

    I'm sure this will stir a lively debate, but then hey, these issues have to be addressed and I'm not trying to start a fight here, just know what kind of opinions like these are out there.

  • In reply to Koko:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Koko. Your ideas are exactly the ones I had in mind as I wrote this piece. It's a hot debate. I, and many others, will continue to fight for policy change. Thanks, Ray

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    In theory, I agree with your argument that the benefits of education reform substantially outweigh the benefits of immigration reform. However, in practice, politics tend to get in the way of good policy. Education reform, according to public perception, is not a wedge issue like immigration reform. Education reform is not as sexy, decorated or otherwise conducive to passionate debate about its merits and effects on society. Therein lies the unfortunate position the American public has placed itself. The American public rather concern itself with "foreigners," "intruders," and "job-stealers" rather than the academic progress of our youth. It's unfortunate that the only time education gets headlines in our media is when the voucher-for-private-school debate creates sharp ideological differences worthy of a Fox News-style shouting match.

    Your last two bullet points are the foundation to real change. We must first strive to change America's perception of what issues are most important. Then we must push educated people, not ideological zealots, into decision-making positions. I think only then will we see progress the way you and I see fit - through education.

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    I should note that Koko proved the primary point of my first paragraph.

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