Access to a college education: DREAM or reality?

I wrote the following story for a reporting class that I was in this past semester. As I am a supporter of the DREAM Act, it was a challenge to write this story from a journalist’s perspective and not an advocate’s. I tried though, and this is my final product!


Alicia Torres Don grew up in a family where it was stressed that working hard to make a living was more necessary than an education. But Torres Don, one of nine children, wanted to go to college.

Because of her undocumented status, a college education was just a distant dream, as it is for the approximately one million undocumented youth and children living in the United States. While there is no federal law that prohibits the admission of undocumented students into colleges and universities in the U.S., there are only 12 states that offer in-state tuition to those students, making college a pricey and often unaffordable option.

Lucky for her, Torres Don grew up in one of those 12 states, Texas, and was able to get a college education, but she recognizes that it was a choice that not everyone has.

“I value it because it was a choice that I had that I didn’t think I had,” she said. “It was a choice that was there, so that’s why I think we need to keep fighting.”


The history of the ‘DREAM’

Access to higher education for the nation’s undocumented youth became a hot topic for debate in 2001 when a bill was introduced during the 107th Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who graduated from a college or university or enrolled in the military.

Within the next few years, it acquired the name “DREAM Act,” the initials of which mean Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors. Though it continued to fail in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, supporters continued to fight for its passage, particularly after it was voted down in 2007.

When the bill was reintroduced in 2009, groups around the nation mobilized efforts to fight yet again to pass the DREAM Act. One such group in North Carolina, the N.C. DREAM Team, organized rallies and hosted vigils with particular efforts focused on convincing their state’s Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan to support the bill.

“We were aware that the DREAM Act wasn’t going to have a huge effect here in North Carolina because we didn’t even have in-state tuition,” said Torres Don, an N.C. DREAM Team member, “but we felt that if on a federal level there was a DREAM Act, then it would be an easier fight locally.”

To the disappointment of Torres Don and the rest of the state’s undocumented youth, the bill failed and worse, did not receive a supportive vote from Hagan.

“While I am open to considering some of the provisions of the DREAM Act in the context of comprehensive immigration reform, I believe that the United States must address the issue of illegal immigration at its core,” said Hagan in an email.

The most recent version of the bill that was reintroduced this year gives undocumented students an opportunity for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, by completing at least two years of higher education or serving for at least two years in the military. In addition, the student must be under 35 years old at the time of the bill’s enactment and must have entered the U.S. before the age of 15.


The education debate

Supporters of the bill believe its provisions would benefit both undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike.

“We believe that if they have gone to K through 12 here, it only makes sense that they go to college here so that they can contribute back, give back to the country,” said Nayely Peréz-Huerta, community organizer and advocacy coordinator for El Pueblo, Inc. “For us, that would be the DREAM Act.”

However, opponents see the bill as a reward for illegal behavior.

“The Dream Act Amnesty legislation is not focused on immigrants,” said William Gheen, director of Americans For Legal Immigration PAC. “It is focused on providing benefits and amnesty for illegal aliens.”

“Every time we give someone a break who’s broken the law, what are we telling the people who are standing line, waiting their turn?” asked Ron Woodard, director of the nonprofit immigration reform organization NC LISTEN.

Still, advocates stand strong in their belief that undocumented students deserve a college education in the U.S.

“We do believe that they should have the same rights as any other students because they have been working just as hard,” said Peréz-Huerta. “All students should be given the same opportunities.”


On a local level

Under the current admissions policy agreed on by the State Board of Community Colleges, undocumented students may apply to and enroll in North Carolina’s community college system. The policy, which took effect in 2010, states that an undocumented applicant must be a graduate of a U.S. high school and must pay out-of-state tuition. In addition, U.S. citizens have priority over undocumented immigrants in classes or programs that have limited capacity.

“A community college will do everything it can to accommodate all students who are interested in taking classes, but many classes aren’t able to accommodate all the students that want to take them,” said Megen Hoenk, director of marketing and external affairs for the N.C. Community College System Office.

This admissions policy is consistent with the policies of other higher education institutions throughout the state, including that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“From an admissions standpoint, some undocumented immigrants have indeed applied and enrolled through the years, but this is very, very few,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. “We don’t use citizenship as a factor in making a decision nor do we track the number of applicants who are undocumented immigrants.”

While UNC-Chapel Hill may not track those numbers, the N.C. Community College System does and recorded 142 undocumented immigrants enrolled in curriculum programs within the system in 2009. That number rose to 193 in 2010.

Undocumented students in North Carolina have faced and continue to face their fair share of opposition. In Jan. 2011, N.C. House Rep. George Cleveland of Oslow County introduced House Bill 11 in the N.C. General Assembly, a bill “prohibiting illegal aliens from attending North Carolina community colleges and universities.”

“I strongly feel that the taxpayers’ money should not support illegal activity of any kind,” Cleveland said.

The bill, which has made little progress since its introduction, would put North Carolina in the same boat as Alabama and South Carolina, two states that prohibit the admission of undocumented students to state colleges and universities.


‘My home is here’

Opponents of accepting undocumented students into U.S. colleges and universities believe that the issue is not whether those students can get an education, but where.

“As an adult illegal alien, someone who’s finished high school can go back to their native country and get an education there. No one’s denying them an education,” said Woodard. “That’s where they’re legally from, so no one’s denying them the opportunity to go back home.”

But for many undocumented youth who were brought here as children by their parents, their home is in the U.S.

“My home is here. My home is where my parents are. My home is where I have Christmas. My home is where I have my friends,” said Torres Don, who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was six years old.

Torres Don, now 26, enrolled in elementary school in Austin, Texas, and while she succeeded in her classes, she was one of the first in her family to do so.

“My mom has an elementary education, as does my dad, so for them, it was really hard for them to go into a parent-teacher conference and for the teacher to try to make my parents understand the value of education,” she said.

Torres Don became the first one in her family to graduate from high school, earning her diploma from Anderson High School in Austin in 2004. Because Texas law allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, she was able to enroll at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, later that year.

“The longer you’re here and the more that you’re exposed, you know that education is very important and that it can take you a lot of places, regardless of your status,” she said.

Torres Don moved to North Carolina a year ago and, along with her younger brother José, immediately got involved with the N.C. DREAM Team, a grassroots organization fighting for immigrant rights. She and other group members fought hard for the passage of the DREAM Act last year, and when it failed, the group refocused their goals.

“In North Carolina, it was the fact that we needed to build base. We needed undocumented youth to drop the fear. We needed to sort of offer that support role, and we also needed people to know their rights,” she said.

For Torres Don, going back to Mexico for college was never a consideration.

“In you asking me to go back and consider going to college in Mexico, you’re asking me to consider giving up my life and giving up my family in the United States,” she said.

“Yes, I know the language. Yes, that’s where I was born, but at the end of the day, it’s a strange, scary place because my home is where my family, my heart and my friends are at. It’s all here.”


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