Five myths about the Dream generation

President Obama’s recent decision to halt the deportation of some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children wasn’t far ahead of public opinion. A recent Gallup poll indicated that a majority of Americans support legislation to allow such immigrants to stay if they serve in the military or go to college. But 11 years after the introduction of the federal Dream (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which has never been passed, misconceptions about the Dream generation remain. Where are they coming from? Are they freeloaders taking advantage of America’s generosity?

1. The Dream generation is Latino.

Young undocumented Americans come from a cross-section of countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. There are growing numbers of non-Latino, Dream Act-eligible students on university campuses across the country. In the University of California system, for example, more than 40 percent of the undocumented students are Asian. And Dreamers from 15 countries, including Nigeria, Germany and Israel, appeared on the cover of Time magazine this month.

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According to research from the University of California at Irvine, the countries that send the most undocumented immigrants to the United States also send the largest numbers of legal immigrants. Following Mexicans and Central Americans, Filipinos, Indians and Koreans round out the top five. The communities that the Dream Act would help don’t all speak Spanish.

2. If we make it tough for these students and their families, they will self-deport.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supports self-deportation — the idea that stricter immigration laws will make life for undocumented immigrants so unbearable that they will leave. Arizona, which allows local police officers to make routine stops of anyone they suspect is undocumented, has embraced this view.

But self-deportation is unrealistic. Young immigrants’ lives are rooted in the United States. They speak English. They go to American schools. Alongside their U.S.-born peers, they watch “SpongeBob SquarePants,” read “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” and love Lady Gaga. While they may have had little choice in their parents’ decision to migrate, they are here to stay.

Unsurprisingly, few of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants have lined up to leave. The Pew Research Center estimates that the number of Mexicans here is declining, but to my knowledge there is no data on Dreamers returning to their countries of origin.

3. All Dream Act students came here illegally.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, up to 45 percent of undocumented immigrants entered the United States legally with valid visas. Still, after someone overstays a visa, U.S. immigration law makes becoming a legal immigrant difficult. Without a “hardship waiver,” immigrants must return to their country of origin to reapply for visas. And upon departure, they risk incurring bars on reentry of up to 10 years. This process encourages undocumented people to remain in the shadows — and encourages those who do leave the country after overstaying their visas to reenter illegally.

Several years ago, I met a young Korean man in New York who has been in the United States since he was a baby; his parents came here for college, then overstayed their student visas. Though he graduated from college and dreamed of being a federal judge, he works in his parents’ grocery store partly because he can’t apply for a white-collar job without papers. Because he is 32, he would not benefit from the Obama administration’s new policy, which covers people under 30.

4. The Obama administration’s new immigration policy means we don’t need the Dream Act.

Obama’s new policy grants deserving youth a kind of second-class citizenship. The greater stability that the Dream Act would provide, including a path to full citizenship, would be better.

For the Dream generation, life is fraught with mental and emotional stress. As its members reach the end of high school, they are often unable to participate in the rites of passage that their friends experience — learning to drive, working part time and applying to college. Many choose not to share their secret with their friends or teachers, separating themselves from critical support networks. To help their parents, many turn to low-wage jobs, risking deportation. Learning to be “illegal” takes its toll.

In more than 10 years of research, I’ve met hundreds of Dreamers across the country. I’ve talked with dozens who suffer from chronic headaches, ulcers, difficulty sleeping and trouble getting out of bed. Last November, an undocumented high school senior in South Texas took his life. “I’ve realized that I have no chance in becoming a civil engineer the way I’ve always dreamed of here,” he wrote in a goodbye note.

5. The Dream generation can get in line, join the military or marry a U.S. citizen.

Immigration law makes the pathways to citizenship very rocky. Many noncitizens do not qualify for refugee status or asylum. Many do not have a family member who is a U.S. citizen and can petition for them. For those who do, quotas are so small that it can take decades to make it to the front of the line. Employer sponsorship is also difficult, as too few visas are available for skilled workers, and visas for unskilled workers are limited to 5,000 per year. And the price tag of immigration is high — filing fees, medical examinations and lawyers can cost thousands.

Meanwhile, marrying a U.S. citizen is a common path to legal status, but it’s not a guarantee. There are many exceptions. If the noncitizen entered the country illegally, for example, a marriage will not result in permanent residency. And while noncitizens can enlist in the military, they must have a valid alien registration card.

People who come here illegally do so because there’s no easy legal path. For most, there is no line to join.

rggonzales@uchicago.edu

Roberto G. Gonzales is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He is writing a book on undocumented immigrant youth and their difficult transitions to adulthood.

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