Secretaries Duncan and Solis Meet with DREAMers

Secretaries Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan meet with students during one of Duncan's regular "Student Voices" sessions. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

“Opportunity.”

A powerful concept packed into a single word.

This was the word one young person chose to describe what education means to him when asked by Secretary Duncan and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis as part of a reoccurring Student Voices meeting at ED headquarters. The frank conversation between the Secretaries and the group of young advocates largely revolved around the obstacles undocumented youth face while living in the United States, particularly limited access to higher education.

Several of the students discussed how difficult it was to be a “DREAMer”—a label derived from the “DREAM Act” that the students use to describe undocumented young people who have lived in the U.S. from a very young age.  The students explained their frustration and disappointment that they cannot fulfill their dreams of a college degree once they graduate high school, good grades and hard work are rendered invalid the day they learn they can’t apply to colleges or scholarships without having a social security number.

With estimates of approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduating from American high schools annually and no viable pathway to legal status, this is not an isolated problem.

DREAMers’ obstacles to higher education are myriad. Even if accepted, most colleges and universities require undocumented students to pay non-resident or out-of-state tuition – a prohibitive cost. They get no access to federal financial aid (this includes Work Study and Pell Grants) and their chances for scholarships are narrow at best.

“I got in to a top school,” said one now non-student with tears welling up in his eyes. “But I deferred because I don’t have a way of paying for it. I can’t apply for financial aid, so Work Study is out.”

Victor George Sánchez Jr., President of the United States Student Association, speaks with the Secretaries during the "Student Voices" session. Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams.

There is irony in the fact that the U.S. has an abudance of undocumented students who are extremely motivated, informed, who earn excellent grades, and who have developed marketable skills.

And yet, we are turning away promising nation-builders in droves.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to prepare our students for their next steps in life – documented or undocumented. It’s as if these fearless young people are on a starting block and we rally them to bound forward enthusiastically with all the promises of a college education and the hopes of a solid career.

“Ready!…Set!…” But instead of yelling “Go!” we ask them to take one step back because, while they did every single thing we asked of them over their school career (and they did it well), it’s still not enough.

I ask myself why we spend so much energy on creating more hoops for talented young DREAMers to jump through. Why not spend it finding ways for them to connect with opportunities they worked so hard to glean?

Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

10 Comments

  1. I just hoping President Obama passes DREAM Act that way undocumented young people or non-US citizen people could have equal rights and have same opportunity in this “oppotunity land”.
    Most of undocumented people buy social security number and pay their taxes. Even people that I know are “illegal”, but they do pay tax.
    Applying for legal status cost lots of money that undocumented people cannot afford, and since they do not have proper documentation, they won’t be able to apply for any types of legal status. Meaning undocumented people do not have a choice except to be “illegal immagrants”.

    PASS THE DREAM ACT!! PLEASE!!!

  2. I can understand that the Department’s hands are tied by the law in the case of the DREAMERS but the department has no excuse whatsoever for failing to help many young people who want to go to college in this country and are in legal status. Among these are crime victims. The department’s own eligibility statement says that non-citizens “in the United States under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act” are eligible for financial aid but when these people apply for aid they are denied. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? Secretary Duncan, how do you expect eighteen year old crime victims to pay their way through college in this economic climate?

  3. DREAMers should not be punished for what their parents did. They have done everything we have asked them to do: they have worked hard in school; they have stayed out of trouble; and are leaders in their communities. We should not be denying these talented students of an education when we have already invested in them throughout their K-12 careers.

    And please stop calling people illegal.

  4. Hmmm. So my DREAM–and that of my children–should be that we, as US citizens, are able to work hard and pay our taxes to fund the DREAMS of those who unabashedly break our laws.

  5. Paragraph 1324, Chapter 12 under Title 8 of the U.S. Penal Code:
    Any person who … knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, such alien in any place, including any building …shall be punished as provided in subparagraph (B).

    Illegal aliens should be deported asap.

  6. DREAMers should be required to apply for American citizenship. Why is this not required before receiving “preferred” status? So many lovely words about promising young people,but why no mention of their responsibility to their new found “homeland” America. Even my housekeeper became an an American citizen. She came here from central America seventeen years ago. Why is it so difficult for the “educated”. Free stuff really does cost something.

  7. The DREAM ACT is absolutely unfair to citizens and registered aliens. Criminals should never be given priority over law abiding citizens. This is a travisty and slap in the face.

  8. Secretary Solis and Secretary Duncan:
    Thank you for taking time to acknowledge the contributions of undocumented students. I also teach in a community deeply impacted by this problem and pray that President Obama’s administration will enact the promise of immigration reform. Passing the DREAM Act would send a strong signal to the world that we practice what we preach – in terms of human rights and American values. Undocumented students consider themselves Americans. Many of my students wish they could join the military, police, fire, nursing, teaching, and other service professions. Please continue to fight for this issue. Thank you for your continued interest.

  9. These dreamers should have the opportunity to study. In a higher education because their lives in here in this country.

  10. As a teacher of many DREAMers I applaud you for sharing this perspective and I applaud the Secretaries for meeting with this group of students. Their stories and voices need to heard and Congress needs to pass legislation to help this promising group of young people give back to society. We push the “college for all” agenda but when my young DREAMers graduate they have very few options. What will it take for us as a nation to realize that no human being is illegal? We need to support our DREAMers. They were brought to the U.S. by parents who wanted a better opportunity for their children and they add to the rich fabric that is America. We need to support this group of young folks in every way possible. Our future depends on it.

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