Joel Sati, who came with his family to Silver Spring from Kenya 10 years ago, has set himself a high bar: The community college student hopes to become a neuroscientist.
There’s one thing standing in his way. Sati, 19, is an undocumented immigrant, and therefore ineligible for the tuition assistance that could help him realize his dream.
On Sunday, he was among several hundred students, parents and others who congregated in his city’s Silver Plaza before marching 3.5 miles to Wheaton to show their support for Maryland’s Dream Act.
“I didn’t even know that I was undocumented until I was 17,” Sati said. “The education I want is going to be very expensive. It would be great to have a little tuition help.”
Randy Short, a field organizer with the nonprofit group Casa of Maryland, which organized the march, said the issue “is going to be bigger than the civil rights movement.”
“I’m African American, and we’ve had our struggles, but they can’t throw me out of the country,” Short said. “But with the Latino community, the response is always to just say, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”
Under the legislation, undocumented immigrants could begin courses at community colleges at in-state rates if they prove they have attended Maryland high schools for at least three years. In addition, their parents or guardians must have filed taxes. After earning an associate’s degree, such a student would be eligible to transfer to a state university, also at in-state rates.
The law is in question, after the state’s Court of Appeals cleared the way in June for Maryland’s first referendum on a state law in 20 years. The order rejected a lawsuit that contended that the Dream Act should be exempt from a popular vote on the grounds that it involved fiscal matters.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other supporters are building a campaign to encourage voters to affirm the law.
Sunday’s march was the second in a series of events planned across Maryland to generate support for the measure, which Marylanders will vote on in November.
According to the 2010 Census, about 8 percent of Maryland’s population identifies as Hispanic.
Throughout the march, chants such as “Undocumented and unafraid!” could be heard in English and Spanish. Marchers carried signs in both languages, as well as in French.
The march attracted supporters from as far away as California. Andrea Gomez, an Arkansas community college student who moved to the United States from Peru when she was 4, made the trip as a member of the Arkansas United Community Coalition.
“In order for us to make a difference,” Gomez said, “we have to show the country that this is a national issue. We’re all in this together.”
Sati shared Gomez’s sense of solidarity.
“We’re here, and we’re Americans,” Sati said, sharing Gomez’s sense of solidarity. “We just want to live the American dream.”