Hannah Gill: Immigrant Youth and the High Stakes of Higher Education

As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, we welcome a guest post from Hannah Gill, author of The Latino Migrant Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State. In the book, Gill offers North Carolinians from all walks of life a better understanding of their Latino neighbors, bringing light instead of heat to local and national debates on immigration. In this post, she addresses one of the biggest concerns of Latino youth: higher education.–ellen

We’re reaching the close of National Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15), which has been celebrated since 1968 in order to highlight the contributions of people from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America in the United States. This year, Hispanic Heritage Month has followed a long summer of protest and discontent nationwide in reaction to events that included a historic oil spill in the Gulf, financial insecurity from the Great Recession, and the nation’s toughest immigration law in recent history, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.  Few causes, however, sparked protests as desperate and urgent as those led by immigrant youth seeking the passage of the DREAM Act this summer.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, if passed by Congress, will give immigrant students access to higher education and a path to legal status. An estimated 65,000 students graduate from U.S. high schools annually but are unable to attend college because of their lack of legal status. Specifically, the DREAM Act would enable eligible students to apply for a conditional legal status for a six-year period in which they must graduate from college or serve in the military for two years.  After this six-year period and a clean criminal record, students could obtain permanent legal residence status. Opponents of the DREAM Act think that it will reward bad behavior, namely illegal presence in the United States. The question of culpability is central to DREAM Act proponents, who point out that many of these students brought to the United States by their families as young children know no other home. Unable to attend college in their countries of birth or in the United States, they face an educational dead end.

In North Carolina, where most of the state’s half-million Hispanics are Tar Heel born and bred, immigrant youth played a prominent role in protests, which took many forms throughout the summer.  These protests included hunger strikes ended only by hospitalization, 1500-mile “dream walks” from Florida to Washington, D.C., Facebook petitions signed by thousands, and rallies in front the capital building in Raleigh. Remarkably, many youth without legal immigration status overcame fears of being deported and participated publicly in these activities.

These student actions in NC and beyond created the momentum for legislators to advance the DREAM Act in Congress, which was introduced in September as an attachment to the Department of Defense Authorization Bill. Senator Kay Hagan’s office phone was busy for the two days before the vote, no doubt from a high volume of calls from supporters and opponents of the bill. On September 21, six days into Hispanic heritage month, a filibuster stalled the DREAM Act. Proving how toxic and politically unpopular immigration reform efforts have become, even the very author of the original DREAM Act (in 2001), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), did not back efforts to get the bill passed.

For students involved in the DREAM Act movement, this is only a temporary setback.  “Our fight for the DREAM Act is far from being over. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the commitment and strength of our community as we demand our leaders … introduce the DREAM Act as a standalone bill before the elections,” wrote a DREAM Act supporter in North Carolina the day after the filibuster. On October 12, members the NC-based Adelante Education Coalition and “United We Dream Network” will open the inaugurating class of the North Carolina Dream University (NCDU) at the NC State Capitol in Raleigh. This movement will grow, like all youth movements born out of crises, until reform is achieved.

In the meanwhile, what is at stake for the many youth whose lives hinge upon the passage of this legislation? What is at stake for North Carolina communities? This question was answered in part for me a couple of weeks ago, when I ran into Juliette, one of the young people whose extraordinary story is featured in my book, The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State. In the book, Juliette discusses her experience of coming to the United States from Mexico at the age of fifteen with her mother and overcoming a number of obstacles after they were unable to renew their visas. In order to fulfill her dream of going to college, Juliette learned English, graduated from high school after repeating her senior year, studied for the SAT until she scored high enough to gain admittance to a community college, and transferred to a public university, where she maintained a GPA of 3.5. All the while, she worked full time to cover out-of-state tuition (despite the fact that her family pays NC taxes annually), stayed active in her church, and started a mental health support group for teens.

Now in her final semester of college, I asked Juliette the question that seniors hate: what do you plan to do next? For teachers, this is normally a fun question to pose to accomplished students like Juliette, because we have the benefit of experience to know that their hard work is about to pay off. These are students who will receive scholarships to graduate school, accept Congressional fellowships or Teach for America positions, or put their newly acquired skills and knowledge to work in their own communities. For Juliette, however, none of these options are available because of her immigration status. There are many thousands of students in her situation who will never be able to use their degrees to work in the United States.

Juliette replied that she would probably leave the United States to go to a country that would be receptive of her training and skills, which include a degree in psychology with a specialization in treating suicide and depression, fluency in several foreign languages, and extensive non-profit management experience. For this future leader, it’s a big world of opportunity. For North Carolina communities, Juliette is an opportunity lost. Unless, of course, the DREAM Act is passed.

Hannah Gill is assistant director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and research associate at the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of Going to Carolina del Norte: Narrating Mexican Migrant Experiences.