Activists from the growing student movement for the DREAM Act cautiously applauded today’s news that President Barack Obama will implement many of the proposed legislation’s provisions — allowing some undocumented immigrants who came here as children to obtain work permits and be safe from deportation. Obama’s executive order establishes a new policy that bypasses Congress, which voted down the DREAM Act in 2010.
“If this announcement is as good as it sounds, it will open up the doors to job opportunities,” said Daniela Alulema, 25, a New York City advocate for the DREAM Act, who is herself an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. “I will be particularly happy for many of my friends who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees and will be able to obtain job positions that they are qualified for and deserve.”
In the video above, Alulema tells her own story of how she became involved in the campaign for a DREAM Act, both at the New York State and federal level. Alulema called today’s announcement a long overdue response to the years of hard work and activism by undocumented youth — recently, groups of undocumented youth have staged hunger strikes and sit-ins at Obama campaign offices.
Past disappointments have taught undocumented activists to be cautious in their enthusiasm.
“All of us are happy, and also taking this announcement with skepticism,” Alulema said. “We don’t want to get our hopes high, unless this will actually work.”
Obama’s executive order, which he called a “a temporary stopgap measure,” falls short of offering full citizenship, as the federal version of the DREAM Act does, or even permanent legal status, The New York Times reported. Instead, it offers some young undocumented immigrants a two-year “deferred action” that removes the threat of deportation for up to two years, and can be extended. The new rule applies to immigrants who came here before they were 16, have been here five years, and are under the age of 30. They must have no criminal record and have remained in school or served in the military. Officials estimated that the policy will affect 800,000 people.
Up until now, 65,000 students without immigration status have graduated U.S. high schools every year, according to the Urban Institute. These students have not been able to receive public financial aid – keeping college out of the grasp of many who seek higher education.
Just a few years ago, Alulema was one of the students who graduated high school without a social security number. Her parents brought her to the United States from Ecuador when she was 14 years old, planning to stay for a year.
Daniela was lucky — unlike many undocumented students, she was able to pay for and attend Baruch College using her parents’ savings, supplemented by private scholarships. Still, Daniela feels the heavy weight of her undocumented status on a daily basis. Even though she has a college degree, she can’t work legally in the United States. She is also unable to travel outside of the US and visit family in Ecuador.
Daniela decided to channel her mounting frustration and anger into working for change. She joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an undocumented youth-led activist group, and learned how to petition legislators, fund-raise, and hold rallies.
The YLC was one of the groups that pushed for the New York State Dream Act after the failure of the federal Dream Act. The state bill, which was introduced by State Senator Bill Perkins and State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares last March, would allow undocumented students who meet New York State residency requirements to receive public student financial aid. The state legislation has not advanced, but advocates have expressed hope that legislators will pass it before the current legislative session ends later this month.
In the meantime, Alulema said, she and her fellow advocates remained cautious in their assessment of Obama’s policy change, especially in an election year.
He needs the Latino and immigrant vote to get re-elected, and the only thing he has done for immigrants is to deport more than one million of our brothers and sisters,” she said. “We will not celebrate this deferred action announcement until we see actual results, and we will make sure to keep Obama accountable for his actions.”
Editor’s note: This story and its headline have been edited since it was first published, to reflect new comments by Daniela Alulema.