Op-Eds and Commentaries
Lawmakers can give Dreamers chance at higher-ed success
Imagine a scenario where a young person has grown up and attended a local public school. Overnight, that student has nowhere to go, no right to belong. This right is stripped from Dreamers upon high-school graduation. The dream of becoming a college student vanishes into thin air once they start filling out college applications. This is the time when many undocumented youth learn their legal status — when they realize they cannot apply for financial aid, and they are ineligible for in-state tuition.
"Dreamers" refers to children of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children but who have grown up here and consider themselves American. They are called Dreamers because of the laws of many states that bar undocumented teenagers from enrolling in public higher education (as in Alabama and South Carolina) or make this such an insurmountable barrier (by charging them three to four times the in-state tuition rate) that their aspirations amount to just dreams.
As college professors in Florida, we have met Dreamers in our classrooms. They often can afford to take only one or two classes each semester, given the high cost of out-of-state tuition. We do not always learn much about their personal experiences, but last year this changed when we met one Dreamer who reminded us of how laws that are intended to help some groups can contribute to an unequal playing field for others.
Unbeknown to him, he also taught us a lesson on what it means to be a good citizen. Frustrated with the inaction on immigration reform in 2010, this bright young man walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the suffering of undocumented youth.
He had the good fortune, however, of having his citizenship sponsored by an estranged relative who saw him in the news during his trek to Washington. Years later, despite his newfound citizenship, he still aches for his undocumented peers who struggle financially and emotionally. His story, and those of young adults like him, compelled us to learn more about how undocumented youth manage to stay hopeful and work to beat the odds.
This student is now part of our research team, and he has made immense contributions to our project on the lives of immigrant young adults. Today he is at the Florida State Capitol advocating for his undocumented peers. He has shared his experiences, opening the eyes of fellow students.
Had he not received his U.S. citizenship, he would not be attending our university, we would have never met, and the enrichment he has brought to us, to our research, and to other students, would not have materialized. How much talent is out there, wasted because of unequal access to higher education? This is talent that we, as a state, risk losing by rejecting these students through laws that make it virtually impossible for them to afford the academic training they seek.
This is what is at stake in today's Senate vote. Will legislators allow this talented pool of Floridian students to make a reality of their dreams, or will they vote to keep up the wall preventing them from reaching their full potential?
To those who argue that this is a nation of laws, and that we should not be guided by our hearts on state matters: Were it not for the ability to attain a collective understanding of the social suffering of others, and the conditions that produce it, many of the unjust laws that have been enacted in our nation's history would have never been repealed or reformed.
We believe that the plight of undocumented youth is the civil-rights issue of our time. The bar for establishing whether a law is a good law can be gauged by the degree of social suffering that the law creates, or by how its absence magnifies this condition.
It is our hope that the Senate will vote to end part of this suffering for Florida's undocumented youth. They may not have U.S. citizenship, but if they are anything like the student we've been working with, they embody the values that we often wish all citizens had.
Elizabeth Aranda is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida. Elizabeth Vaquera is an associate professor of sociology at USF.