Undocumented, unafraid and unashamed

Chris Toomey/The Watchdog
Chris Toomey/The Watchdog

On March 13, Andrea Torres, an undocumented student at Bellevue College, celebrated the passing of the Washington DREAM Act through the Washington State House of Representatives. She, along with BC’s Office of Student Legislative Affairs and hundreds of other undocumented students from across the state have been advocating for the rights of undocumented students for months, sharing their stories with state representatives, participating in phone-a-thons with the Washington Bus and lobbying at the Capitol. Torres’ celebration was short-lived, however. On April 2, the Act was supposed to move to the state Senate, but that morning, the Senate decided against hearing the Act because the State lacked funds to support the number of students who need aid.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, aims to provide a way for young undocumented immigrants to gain residency. Under the DREAM Act, students will be eligible for student loans and work-study programs, but not federal grant money, if they meet the following criteria: students must have entered the U.S. before age 16; must have lived in the U.S. for five consecutive years; either graduated high school, obtained a GED or have been accepted into an institution of higher education; be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application; and “be determined to have good moral character”. If the DREAM Act passes, students who apply and meet this criteria will be granted conditional permanent residency, and must either complete two years in the military or an institution of higher education within six years of being approved. After five and a half years, students can apply for permanent residency and if that is granted, they can begin the process of becoming citizens.

Several states have their own version of the DREAM Act. The Washington DREAM Act would allow all students who graduate high school or earn a GED to be eligible for the state’s largest financial aid program, the State Need Grant. They still would not have access to federal financial aid. Currently, Washington is one of 12 states that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, and while this cuts tuition in half, students still need aid.

According to Republican Senator and Chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee Barbara Bailey, in 2012 74,000 students received assistance from the State Need Grant, but 32,000 qualified students were turned away because the state lacked funding. Under the Washington DREAM Act, she estimates that 800 undocumented students would join this pool of eligible applicants. Bailey did not return calls requesting comment on the issue.

In response to the Senate refusing to hear the Act, OSLA Organizing Director Thuy Ngoc “Tweedy” Pham and OSLA Director Kristin Velez are encouraging students to call Bailey to hold a higher education committee meeting to pass the DREAM Act. According to Pham, the DREAM Act is a priority for OSLA because although the exact number of undocumented students is unknown, BC’s open enrollment policy and inexpensive tuition makes it one of the best higher education options for them. Despite the setback, Torres, the OSLA and other undocumented students at BC will not be deterred.

Three years ago, Torres “came out of the shadows”, which means she started publicly sharing her status as an undocumented student. She said that in high school she avoided making friends because she couldn’t explain why she couldn’t do things other kids could do, like drive or work, without revealing her status. She decided to share her story when she moved to Washington from North Carolina because she was inspired by other undocumented students who involved themselves in activism at risk of deportation to help students like her. Since coming out of the shadows, Torres’ story has been featured in local newspapers such as the Bellevue Reporter and she even spoke at the Capitol on Lobby Day on Feb. 18 about her life as an undocumented student.

Torres and another undocumented student who attends BC but wished to remain anonymous feel that there are a lot of misconceptions about undocumented people and they hope to rectify these stereotypes by sharing their stories. Both students stressed the fact that undocumented people still work hard and pay taxes like other Americans and that despite the fact that their parents came to this country illegally, America is all they have ever known.

“It’s a mental struggle to know that you’ve grown up in this place, your friends have been your friends since kindergarten, you speak the language but you’re still not considered part of it,” said Torres.

“This is my home. I don’t call anywhere else my home. Of course I’m Mexican and respect my culture, but here is where I live and where I grew up. My whole life is here. So it’s hard when people don’t understand that,” said the anonymous student, who shared her story for the first time at a rally at the capitol advocating for the Act, but wished to keep her name private for the time being. She added that undocumented students aren’t looking for anything for free, or for privileges not awarded to American citizens. “We are people that want to go farther in life and contribute to this country.”

Said Torres: “I can embrace my status, and I hope to change it, but while I’m still undocumented, I’m still going to try to be the best at whatever I’m going to do. I’m not going to let a status limit me.”

The OSLA encourages students to call (360) 786-7618 and express their support for the DREAM Act. Scripts and resources can be found at the OSLA desk in Student Programs.