Students Vow to Keep Fighting For the Dream Act

Even as more than 50 protesters ended their seven-day Dream Act hunger strikes on March 31, students from several area colleges pledged to continue to pressure legislators until they include New York State Dream Act in the next year’s budget. The Act aims to provide tuition assistance and other state grants and scholarships to undocumented students in New York State.

Undocumented youth have been pushing for the New York Dream Act since it was first introduced in 2011 as a response to the federal Dream Act’s failure to pass in 2010. Starting on March 25th, the hunger strike was led by students from several schools and organizations—CUNY DREAMers, SUNY DREAMers, DREAMers without Borders, DRM, and the Staten Island DREAM Coalition. Though the legislation was not included in this years budget, the students said they were were proud of their efforts and that the fight is not over.

“It shows that undocumented students are willing to do anything to get the Dream Act passed,” said Osman Canales, a student at Suffolk County Community College and president of Long Island Immigrant Students Advocates. “They are tired of waiting. It was beyond lobbying. It was putting their bodies on the line.”

Since 2011, Canales has been advocating for the passage of Dream Act by organizing students, urging them to visit their local representatives, sign petitions, and make phone calls to the assembly members’ and senators’ offices to ask for their support. “I was very upset because we are in the fifth year that we continued waiting for them to pass the DREAM Act,” Canales said. “I feel both political parties are just playing political games with undocumented people. They have the power to do more.”

Gov. Cuomo, Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced the final deal on the 2015-16 year budget on March 29th. It excluded the contentious Dream Act, which had been opposed by Republicans, who control the State Senate and don’t believe taxpayers’ money should be invested in undocumented students. The Dream Act would cost up to $27 millions in an almost $142 billion budget, which would translate into 87 cents a year per tax payer to extend higher education access to undocumented students, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI).

State Senator Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), the lead sponsor of the Dream Act, announced on March 30th that he was “extremely disappointed, infuriated, and devastated by this move.”

According to a CUNY DREAMers public announcement on Facebook, among 90-95 percent of DREAMers who graduate from high school, only 5 to 10 percent of that group make it to the college and graduate, due to a lack of financial support.

“When I was in high school, a lot of my friends were undocumented and they couldn’t go to the college because they couldn’t afford it,” Canales said. “A lot of these students don’t live with their relatives, so they are independent and don’t have the support from their family.”

Angel Rivas is one of the undocumented millions who continues to struggle after going to a college. He is in his second semester of not going to school to save for tuition.

Rivas came to United States from Peru when he was 15 to live with his mother, who had been deported back to Peru in 2009. It took him two years after high school, he said, to save enough to go to Nassau Community College. He cleaned bathrooms at a country club, worked construction jobs, and cut up meat as a butcher at a local grocery store. Rivas said he once worked at a bagel store—from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., for a year—in order to sustain himself and support his mother in Peru.

“I remember, my head used to hurt because of the heat” in the bakery, Rivas said, recalling the stifling kitchen. “I knew I want to go back to college but I didn’t know how.”

Rivas is taking time off after his sophomore year to work at Phone Fix It, a store that offers services like phone and tabloid repair, buying back old phones, and unlocking phones. “I took off because I have to find a way to stabilize and go back to school,” Rivas aid. “I have to wait until my business starts improving. If the DREAM Act passed, I would be able to work and go to school at the same time.”

Cuomo promised to pass the Dream Act in his campaign last year. Some undocumented students expressed their disappointment in him because they feel they were used as merely political clout to help Cuomo get reelected.

“He is not paying attention to the lived realities of thousands of undocumented students who are not able to realize their college goals because he dropped the legislation,” said Razeen Zaman, a key organizer for the Dream Act, which she said had helped draft when it was first introduced in March 2011. An undocumented student from Bangladesh since she was a toddler, Zaman graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, majoring in postcolonial theory. She chose to go to that college because it offered her a full scholarship. She joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council in 2011 when she saw its members staging a hunger strike to push for the passage of federal Dream Act. She was inspired by the effort, she said, realizing that her situation “is part of a larger structural problem.”

“I was so exhausted about being silent about my status,” Zaman said. “I lied to my friends because they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find a job after graduating from college. It was very stressful for me.”

Zaman is one of the main authors of a 2012 report by New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic and New York State Youth Leadership Council, “The New York DREAM Act: Creating Economic Opportunities for NY State,” a thorough look at the implications of the DREAM Act put together for the governor’s office. She said the report was used to lobby Republicans for the Dream Act in economic terms rather than moral talking points.  

The report makes the case that there would be economic gains in New York State if the Dream Act was passed. The reason: making higher education more affordable increases high school graduation rates and college enrollment for undocumented students, which would provide stronger return on investment for the state through expanded tax revenues. The report shows that an individual with a four-year degree earns an estimated $25,000 more per year than a high school graduate, and pays an estimated $3,900 more per year in state and local taxes. The report also found increasing college access among undocumented youth could lead to lower crime rates, and less of a reliance on public assistance programs.

If the bill passes, New York will become the fifth state—after California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington—to offer state financial aid to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.