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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