Betwixt and Between the Dream

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, October 5, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Julita is an undergraduate with a double major in psychology and Spanish at a university in Texas. She aspires to attend grad school to become a teacher. At 23, she is about to celebrate her first decade in this country -- she hopes the first of many.

Julita is a 1.5er, a member of a generation who came as children with immigrant parents to the United States. One-point-fivers are neither first-generation immigrants, adults who immigrated to the United States; nor are they second-generation, children born here of immigrant parents.

These young immigrants are different from their U.S.-born siblings.

They tend to be "the most bilingual," said Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine who has been studying immigrant children since the 1960s and who coined the term "1.5 generation." Often quickly learning English, they serve as interpreters for their non-English-speaking parents. Their second-generation siblings are more likely to lose their parents' language and by the third generation most speak only English.

They also are high achievers, working to make good in the eyes of parents who made considerable sacrifices on their behalf. Some too, if they were old enough when they came to the U.S., are motivated by the difficult conditions that they left behind. As Julita put it, "I wasn't going to go to college where I am from....I came here hungry to learn, to get ahead."

On the flip side, 1.5ers are less likely to run afoul of the law. Despite the myth that immigrants are more prone to criminality, study after study has found that the chance of incarceration is greater among second-generation Americans.

You might say 1.5ers are model citizens. You might, but you would be wrong. Julita is afraid to reveal her full name, where she is from, or even what she does to earn a living. As it turns out, a lot of 1.5ers like Julita don't have papers, and live in this country illegally. Julita attends college in Texas, which is one of 10 states that provide in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Congress has a new chance to do right by Julita and the tens of thousands whose circumstances are similar to hers by providing them a clear pathway to legal status. The bill to do that is the so-called Dream Act, first introduced in 2001 but repeatedly stalled. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to introduce it on the floor of the Senate in the next few weeks as stand-alone legislation for the first time.

The bill will be a litmus test of sorts. Its introduction as a standalone provides "a moment a lot of people have been waiting for....It's time to see where people stand on it," said Roberto G. Gonzales, author of a soon to be released report by the Immigration Policy Center about the 1.5ers who would benefit from the Dream Act. "If people give these kids a chance, they are really positioned well to compete in a global economy."

The bill would grant permanent legal residency after a six-year probation to those who have lived in the country for at least five years, attended college for at least two years or served in the military, all while maintaining an unblemished record. An estimated 360,000 undocumented immigrants could qualify immediately, and 65,000 others would join them each year.

Beyond the significance for those it would benefit, the Dream Act tacitly poses important questions to society as a whole. Is the United States ready to provide a modicum of opportunity for those who are well under way to making a positive impact on society? What are the limits of the country's animosity toward undocumented immigrants? Will this country make the children of immigrants pay for the "sins" of their fathers?

The United States could use a dose of the optimism espoused by 1.5ers such as Julita. When asked why go through the trouble of getting a college education when her eventual job search would be thwarted by the lack of papers or when she could even be deported, Julita answered simply: "What else am I going to do? I cannot not go to school. It would be a waste."

"No matter what happens," Julita said, "nobody can take my education away from me." Then she added the much-used cliche, with no trace of irony:

"One of the best things about this country is the opportunity."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company