Seventeen-year-old Marco Pérez seems like an ordinary teenager. He wakes early each morning and rides his bicycle to Theodore Roosevelt High School. As a senior, he is applying to college. Yet he has a challenge unlike those of most other college-bound students. He is a “dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant student with dreams of legalizing his immigration status in the United States.
High school is a time when most teens struggle with belonging, but being undocumented can add to the feeling of alienation. Undocumented students often avoid being active in their communities to minimize the chances of getting caught by immigration authorities.
“I had the fear of getting caught by cops, and I would fear going into deportation procedures,” says Pérez.
Well before President Barack Obama’s new policy toward dreamers opened up new opportunities, high school Dreamers clubs have helped undocumented students like Pérez, providing guidance for continuing education and helping them find financial aid. The clubs also provide students with a secure place to fit, giving them the chance to lean on each other and share similar fears about their futures.
Eileen Truax, a journalist who is writing a book on the dreamers’ movement, says dreamers clubs have increased in the last three or four years, especially in states where there are significant undocumented teen immigrants.
“The main idea of these groups was to organize other students, to let them know that they have certain rights, that they can stand up for those rights, and they can fight for a better life,” Truax says.
Coming out of the shadows
For Pérez, being involved in the Theodore Roosevelt High School Dreamers Club has given him a place of belonging, a place to be himself. Pérez now realizes that many youths have similar struggles and fears. He says that after he got involved his grades and social life improved, and he “came out of the shadows,” meaning he began “coming out as undocumented.”
Dreamers clubs, often led by high school teachers, are not well known outside of immigrant communities, but they have been around since 2001, when the first Federal Dream Act was defeated. That bill, and later versions that also failed, would have provided legal residency for qualifying undocumented youth and access to many of the benefits of U.S. citizens.
According to the Dream Act Portal, a resource center for undocumented youth, there are at least 65,000 undocumented youth among the more than three million students graduating from U.S. high schools each year. For these undocumented students, pursuing a higher education brings additional challenges—including not being eligible for federal financial aid, as qualifying U.S. citizens are.
President Obama’s new policy to help dreamers, called “deferred action,” now allows undocumented youth who meet certain qualifications to receive a two-year work permit and be protected from deportation. In addition, California’s new Dream Act allows dreamers to apply for state financial aid – called Cal Grants – starting in 2013. They can also pay in-state tuition – which is lower than out-of-state tuition – for the first time.
These new changes promise to make a big difference in the lives of many young people who have grown up in fear.
Pérez says that insecurity about his immigration status caused him emotional stress and affected his social life and academics. He says he didn’t care much about his future. He spent time with the wrong kids and didn’t put a lot of attention into his schoolwork.
Looking back, Pérez says he wasn’t a good communicator and didn’t have a sense of humor. He says he felt alienated because he didn’t know whom he could talk to about his status.
“Before, I wouldn’t try talking to you if you came up to me, not even look at you,” he says. “I didn’t know how to socialize. I wasn’t good at it or even taking jokes.”
Support For The Dreamers Club
This changed in his sophomore year, after Pérez’ older brother talked to him about getting his act together and encouraged him to try harder in school so that he could go to college. Pérez joined the Dreamers Club at Roosevelt and found the support he needed.
Vanessa Ramírez, a senior at Oscar De La Hoya Anímo Charter High School, understands these challenges too. Despite her 4.14 grade point average, the 17-year-old had fears about continuing her education.
A program at her school, Students Overcoming All Roadblocks (SOAR), helped her overcome some of these fears. Ramírez says that because of the Dreamers Club she now knows about scholarships and loans that will help her.
“Before, I used to be very negative about going to college, because I wasn’t born here,” she says. “I used to think I wasn’t able to go to college because I’m not going to be able to pay for it.”
Kim Kawaratani, an attorney and teacher who serves as adviser to SOAR, says it is especially important at Oscar De La Hoya Anímo, which has “at least a dozen or two dozen dreamers per graduating class” of about 140, plus others with undocumented family members.
Paying for college is the major obstacle facing her students, she says, so the club focuses on researching colleges and scholarships and other financial aid.
Inspiration to act
The Dreamers Club has also given Pérez the confidence and inspiration to get involved in other immigrant activist organizations, such as the Immigrant Youth Coalition.
During a march last year, he got inspired when he heard people saying that they were undocumented, but unafraid. “I thought that if they had this much courage to say that, to come out, I want to do this, too,” Pérez says.
Last September, Pérez committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the Trust Act, which would have limited local law enforcement’s ability to detain undocumented immigrants. He was arrested and later released.
Truax, the author writing about dreamers, says activism by dreamers is not unique to Boyle Heights or Los Angeles, but that demonstrating is less risky in California than in other states with a more hostile climate for the undocumented.
The main difference among states, she says, is the attitude toward immigrants in the community and “how brave you have to be to in order to stand in the middle of the street shouting, ‘I am undocumented and unafraid.’”
The U.S. Congress remains divided on the federal Dream Act, which has been re-introduced, but President Obama’s action provides new opportunities for dreamers. Since Obama’s re-election, immigration reform seems more likely than in previous years.
Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act in 2011. The California law, which will take in effect in 2013, will allow qualified undocumented students to qualify for waivers, Cal Grants and other financial aid for college.
Ramírez says the new political climate gives her hope that all undocumented students will eventually be able to reach their goals, no matter what obstacles they face. “I was really happy,” she says, “because little by little we can get the support we need so we don’t feel like we don’t belong in this country.”