MONTROSE – A young Montrose woman, now 20, grew up here just like any other American kid, until she learned she had been brought here illegally – without papers – when she was only 5 years old. She doesn’t want her real name revealed, so for convenience and her protection, we’ll call her Hilda.
Hilda is like millions of other young immigrants who had no choice but to follow their parents when they brought them into the United States, sometimes as babies. They grew up like other American kids, only to find out they aren’t citizens, can’t get Social Security numbers or even a driver’s license. They have a hard time getting into college and almost zero chance at scholarships, no matter how good their grades are, or how much service they provide to the community.
Like them, all Hilda wants is a chance to pursue her dreams.
Hilda works as a front desk clerk, not her dream job, but she has little to choose from.
“I graduated from Montrose High, and then I started to go to Mesa State in Montrose, but it was too hard, because I had to work full-time and go to school. The only way to get money was to work.”
Undocumented children of immigrants can attend the Delta-Montrose Technical College, but can’t get certified because they don’t have legal status, she said.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, is now floundering in the lame duck Congress, but if it passes, it would change the lives of Hilda and others like her.
The Dream Act would provide qualified people up to the age of 29 with a path to citizenship if they attend college or join the military, according to a recent article by the Associated Press. An estimated 2.1 million immigrants could be eligible.
Children of immigrant workers don’t have fair advantages or treatment, says Karen Sherman Perez, director of the Montrose chapter of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, and she knows Hilda and many more like her in this area.
“They grow up thinking they are everyday Americans until it’s time to get a driver’s license or go to college,” Perez said.
But opportunities are thwarted and dreams are stymied for these young people who have the same dreams as those who are born here, Hilda said. She still dreams of being an English as a Second Language teacher, even though many colleges won’t accept her and she can’t apply for scholarships.
“I think ESL is important, and I actually help in high school educating little people,” she said. “I helped kids with homework and how to read. I remember what it was like when I was little, and we didn’t have ESL.”
The problem of kids growing up undocumented is more complicated for parents who have other children who were born here and thus are citizens, Hilda said.
“How can you look at some of your kids who have a better future and some of them not?” she asked. “And [how do you feel when] you have brothers and sisters graduating, and you’re still trying to work it out?”
Having grown up here, Hilda is thoroughly American, but she knows she’ll have to continue to push for some kind of legal status before she can pursue her dreams, as will many of her friends.
“One of my friends went to Mesa State for two years, and is really smart, but she’s working in a restaurant,” she said. “She couldn’t become an accountant to help her community, because she doesn’t have any papers.”
Young people who aren’t given the opportunity to lift themselves up become a drain on the economy, Perez said, because they are relegated to earn less, so they spend less.
But giving them a chance to succeed will not only help them, but society as a whole. Perez said the Congressional Budget Office recently said that helping young immigrants get into college or join the military by passing the DREAM Act would add $2.4 billion to the economy and reduce the federal deficit by $1.4 billion over the next ten years.
“If they don’t have options, they’ll probably be exploited and making minimum wage at best,” Perez said. “But if we provide opportunities, they’re going to be earning more, spending more, and paying more taxes to contribute to the local, state and national economy.”
At present, the DREAM Act has passed the U.S. House, but has been pushed to the background in the Senate because of current debate over the tax bill, Perez said.
If the bill fails this session and is not brought up in the next session under increased Republican leadership, groups like the National Council of La Raza and other Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups plan to join with other national organizations to target in the 2012 elections the politicians who were against the DREAM Act.
The push will go on locally, too, Perez said.
“We will continue calling our senators,” she said, noting that Sen. Michael Bennet recently spoke in favor of the DREAM Act in the Senate, but that senators from other states need more convincing.
“The DREAM Act was always a bi-partisan bill, but it’s quite frustrating that Republicans who supported it in the past will not vote for it because of partisan politics,” she said. “That’s the frustrating part, when nothing gets done.”
But Perez hasn’t given up hope, and neither has Hilda. Even though she says “right now I feel stuck,” Hilda does volunteer work with the Hispanic Affairs Project, working on a phone bank to try and educate people about the DREAM Act, which she projects will pass one day.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “We just want an opportunity. We don’t know our native country’s history, but we do know the history of the United States. We are just like U.S. citizens.”