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'Dream Act' Offers Hope for Immigrant Students

September 19, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

On a good day, 20-year-old Elvia Flores feels she's making her family proud, studying in college to become a nurse while working nearly full-time to help pay her family's bills.

But in darker moments, Flores wonders if all the work and sacrifice is worth it.

Flores is an undocumented immigrant. And despite the nation's shortage of bilingual nurses, Flores will likely end up after graduation with little more than a low-paying restaurant job, because she lacks a Social Security number and a legal residency card.

Flores is one of about 65,000 undocumented students across the United States who graduate from high school each year, according to estimates by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit economic and social policy research organization.

For them, a high school or college diploma doesn't guarantee a good job or more money. Because as children they were brought into the country illegally, they face a lifetime in the shadows.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Immigrant legislation -- A story in Sunday's California section about a proposed law to give conditional U.S. residency to students who are undocumented immigrants misnamed the legislation as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minorities Act. It is called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

And still Flores goes to school, hoping she can have a better life than her parents.

Like many others, Flores is hoping for passage of federal legislation that could help her achieve her goal. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minorities Act, known as the Dream Act, would give conditional U.S. residency to students who entered the country five years or more before the bill's enactment and before they were 16 years old.

Residency would become permanent if, within six years of obtaining conditional residency, the immigrant either graduates from a two-year college, studies for two years toward a bachelor's degree, serves in the U.S. armed forces for two years or performs 910 hours of volunteer community service.

Opponents of the measure say the bill would undermine immigration law; its supporters say it would benefit relatively few -- but worthy -- students.

Rallies in support of the Dream Act were held Saturday throughout the country.

On Sept. 13, college students accompanied by members of immigrant rights, civil rights, human rights, labor and religious organizations gathered at USC to begin a 12-day fast to draw attention to the bill.

And last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted to support the bill.

In Santa Ana, Flores said of the Dream Act, "It would change my whole life."

Entering Illegally

Elvia Flores' farming parents abandoned their small village in Mexico when they couldn't afford the tools and field hands to harvest their corn. In 1989, with her mother leading the way, 7-year-old Elvia and three of her siblings ducked into a tunnel beneath the U.S. border, scurried across the desert and hitched a ride to Orange County, where they rejoined her father, who had entered illegally before them.

Flores was enrolled in school, learned English by fifth grade and never thought much about her immigration status until friends in 11th grade got jobs. She couldn't, because she didn't have a Social Security card. But because colleges don't review citizenship status, Flores pursued higher education.

She graduated from high school and, in her second year of college, won a $1,000 scholarship from the college because of her above-average grades.

Flores' counselor knew she wanted to become a nurse, but because she didn't have a Social Security card, recommended instead that Flores pursue a Spanish language degree. Chasing a more career-oriented degree would be futile, the counselor hinted.

That made me feel very low," said Flores. "I wondered was it worth it to keep going to school. What's the point?"

Her uncertainties worsened during her first year in college when her father, a $7.50-an-hour factory worker who earned most of the family's income, suffered a disabling stroke. The family bought food and medicine with a credit card, amassing $6,000 in debt.

To help the family, Flores bought a fake Social Security number and a bogus residency card and landed a job as a restaurant cashier.

"I feel guilty going to school," said Flores, tears filling her eyes. "My family needs the money and I'm studying and I don't even know if I will ever get a good job."

The 'Dream Act'

The Dream Act was introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in July 2001 with 45 cosponsors from both parties. After delays in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it has passed through the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a full Senate vote.

Hatch aide Margarita Tapia said she expects Congress to pass the bill this year.

The Bush administration has not taken a stand on the act; Sen. John F. Kerry supports it. Congressional observers say the bill's passage could send a symbolic message without upsetting opponents of illegal immigration because it affects relatively few people and has no major fiscal effect.

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