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Undocumented Students Hope For Immigration Reform Bill

By Caroline T. Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: May 14, 2013, at 11:15 p.m.

Before she was accepted to Harvard, Emily seriously considered getting married. A high school friend had offered; he was an American citizen, and marriage would have provided her with a sure path to citizenship. However, Emily, a freshman at the College, is now hoping for another path to citizenship. Emily, whose name has been changed in order to protect her privacy, is one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who would be affected by the new immigration proposal in Congress.

The bill would provide undocumented immigrants who arrived before 2011 with a 13-year process that would lead to legalization and eventually citizenship. It would provide a quicker path to citizenship for students like Emily, who would have qualified for the DREAM Act, a proposition from immigration reform that was voted down by the Senate in 2010. However, it also gives the opportunity for citizenship to their parents and other immigrants not encompassed in previous immigration proposals. For Emily, the bill’s passing would mean real, comprehensive immigration reform and security in her future here.

LIVING WITH UNCERTAINTY

Emily’s family came to the United States when she was six, largely for economic reasons. While she considers her family to be fairly well off, she said feels constant uncertainty about their future here. “One of my biggest worries is coming home from school and finding out that my parents were taken in a raid,” she said.

Deborah E. Anker, a clinical professor of law and director of the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, said one of the largest difficulties facing undocumented students here is “living with tremendous insecurity and uncertainty.”

This is a feeling that Emily knows only too well. Even though she has grown up in the United States, she says she lives with the fear that she will be forced to leave.

“There was a raid like two blocks down from where my dad worked once, so all these things are just always on your mind,” she said. “What happens if next time the raid is at my dad’s work? My whole life has been here. I can’t imagine going back and just starting a new life all over again.”

Emily has applied for and received DACA, a temporary two-year permit that allows her to live and work here. While it does give her some security, she said it still makes her feel unsure about her future. “I still don’t feel like a legal immigrant.”

Although Emily can renew DACA, it does not offer any permanent solutions. “What happens in two years, or in 4 years when Obama isn’t in office anymore? It depends on the administration if they want to keep up with it, and Romney was against it, so what makes me believe that another Republican won’t come and take it away?” she said.

Unlike DACA, the new proposal would allow Emily to stay here permanently as an American citizen. “My future would be more secure,” she said. There’s no chance of me going back to a country and having to learn everything all over again.

SHOULDERING THE RESPONSIBILITY

Like many teenagers, Emily plans to get her driver’s license. But unlike other teenagers, she may also obtain a mortgage. Emily’s parents cannot legally obtain a mortgage, but since Emily has DACA, they may be able to take out a mortgage under her name.

This is one of several responsibilities that Emily thinks will be eased if the new immigration bill passes. Unlike the DREAM Act, the new proposal would also give her parents the opportunity to become citizens, and would be able to legally take out their own mortgage.

Knowing that her parents would be able to legally stay in this country would give her a lot more peace of mind about being away from home. She said that one of the hardest things about being at college is worrying about something happening to her parents, and not being there to care of her two younger siblings.

“Knowing that my parents will be included in this bill, it’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “It would allow my parents to get their own education and fulfill some of their own dreams as well.”

The bill would also impact her experience at Harvard, and allow her to concentrate in a subject about which she is truly passionate. Emily said that before receiving DACA and learning about the new immigration proposal in Congress, she felt that she had limited choices about what she could study.

“I was supposed to be the next breadwinner,” she said. “A lot of the things I was looking at were things I didn’t want to do. They were just things that I could take to another country and make a lot of money.”

However, knowing she might be able to become a citizen has made her reconsider her academic options. She is thinking about studying English, something she said would not help her if she were forced to leave the United States.

Emily also thinks that national immigration reform would impact her experience on campus. She said she has spun “a web of lies” for her roommates, and has only told one other student that she is undocumented. She thinks that passing the new proposal would make her feel more comfortable talking about her undocumented status.

THE HARVARD BUBBLE

For Emily, the attitude on campus towards immigration has largely been supportive.” I feel like Harvard keeps you in this bubble,” she said, adding that she feels this bubble protects her from some of the problems that usually face undocumented teenagers.

Francisco D. Hernandez ’13, however, has not experienced the protective benefits of this bubble. He said he thinks administrators could be more supportive of undocumented students, that immigration reform is not a prominent issue for most of the student body.

“There’s not a lot of talk on campus about immigration. We stay in the shadows,” Hernandez said of himself and other undocumented immigrants at Harvard. “If students don’t see or don’t know that we’re struggling, there can’t be a lot of push (for reform).”

However, he said that he has seen some change in attitude over his four years here.

“When I was a freshman, I felt like no one knew we were here,” he said.

He thinks that, because of movements towards immigration reform such as DACA, people are becoming more aware of immigration, though he said the shift is very slow.

“I don’t think we’d be having these talks on our camps if there wasn’t so much happening at the national level.”

While students here may not be well informed about the immigration debate, Anahi D. Mendoza Pacheco ’15, co-director of Act on a Dream, said that most are supportive. For example, she said some believe that the DREAM Act was for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, rather than citizenship. Mendoza also said that there is more support for undocumented student immigrants, since people believe that being undocumented is “not the fault of the student,” than for comprehensive immigration reform overall.

HOPING FOR CHANGE

Emily speaks of the opportunities the proposal would give her family in the future tense, and said she tries to stay positive about the bill’s chances. However, she does have her doubts. “Since I started following politics more, I’ve become very cynical about these things,” she said, citing the rejection of the DREAM Act.

Emily has thought her future if there is no reform. “We’re going to have to seriously start considering the marriage thing again,” she said.

Hernandez shares this cynicism, and said that he has stopped following the immigration debate because of the emotional toll it took.

“I used to follow the DREAM Act big-time,” he said. “It creates a lot of excitement. It creates a lot of hope. And to hear the results and that no, it didn’t pass, it just shuts me down.”

From a policy perspective, Anker sees immigration reform is inevitable.

“I don’t think we can continue on in the country this way with this underground population,” she said.

Anker also said she thinks a rejection of this bill would be “a setback to democracy and national security,” antagonizing the United States abroad and damaging relations with Mexico.

However, Emily said that it is important that people look beyond the politics.

“I think what a lot of people are forgetting is that these are people’s lives,” she said. “This is a human rights issue.”

—Staff writer Caroline T. Zhang can be reached at carolinezhang@college.harvard.edu.

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Student LifeDREAM Act