Undocumented Children Pin Hopes on Revival of DREAM Act

Jesús and Guillermo Reyes were 11 and 15 when their family arrived from Venezuela in 2000. Walter Lara was 3 years old when his parents left Argentina in 1989. Gaby Pacheco was 7 when she came from Ecuador with her parents in 1993. And Juan and Alex Gómez were just toddlers when their family fled Colombia in 1990.

They are all children of undocumented parents who grew up in the United States, the only country they really know. But as adults they are paying the price for their parents’ decision to overstay a visa or cross the border illegally.

In some cases, they were eventually detained and threatened with deportation. But their removal was stayed because of last-minute efforts by friends, classmates, lawyers and lawmakers.

The Reyes brothers’ case has rekindled interest in pending legislation known as the DREAM Act that would provide a solution.

Repeatedly submitted to Congress over the years, the DREAM Act would provide green cards — permanent residency — to children of undocumented immigrants as long as they go to high school or college or enlist in the military.

Provisions of the DREAM Act were added to the first comprehensive immigration reform bill of the current Congress filed in mid-December by Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. Prospects for immigration reform, which seeks to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, are as uncertain as ever — but some believe the DREAM Act stands a better chance because it aims to help young people who were children when their parents arrived in the United States.

Time Is Right

President Barack Obama has indicated he may push for immigration reform after healthcare reform.

“I sense the time is right,” said Gaby Pacheco, a Miami Dade College student spearheading the South Florida fight for the DREAM Act.

She plans to lead a student Walk to Washington from Miami Friday to rally public support for the bill.

Even some immigration reform opponents believe the DREAM Act may pass — but not through reform which would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.

“The chance of amnesty is still zero,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies which supports tighter immigration controls. “Since amnesty is not going to happen, a piecemeal approach might pass instead.”

Krikorian suggests the DREAM Act represents a possible compromise.

Krikorian, one of the most influential immigration control activists, said that if he were a congressman he might support the DREAM Act.

But he says he would amend it to prevent recipients from claiming parents and other adult relatives once they become permanent residents or citizens.

But Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, one of the DREAM Act co-sponsors, is not sure the legislation will come to a vote anytime soon.

“The issue is not dead, but the reality is that [Democratic] House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not agreed, since she has been Speaker in January 2007, to put any immigration issue on the floor,” Diaz-Balart said. “Maybe that will change. I am an eternal optimist.”

Time has run out for some potential DREAM Act beneficiaries like Paola Andrea Arango, a Colombian who came to Miami with her family in 1999 when she was 12, her family said.

A student at Paul W. Bell Middle School, Coral Reef High School and Florida International University, Arango planned to attend medical school before immigration officers recently detained the family. Relatives said the family voluntarily chose to leave for Dubai instead of being returned to Colombia because they feared persecution there.

Their Country

But for other potential beneficiaries, people like the Reyes brothers or the Gómez brothers — made famous in 2007 by the student-led campaign that prevented their deportation — approval of the DREAM Act would let them stay permanently in the United States, the country they view as theirs.

“Colombia would be as foreign as China to us,” Juan Gómez, a gifted Killian High School graduate, was quoted as saying after being released from immigration detention.

Immigration advocates have long argued that children are being punished for the sins of the parents.

Opponents say they are sympathetic to the children, but contend that the parents broke the law and should not go unpunished.

“Parents have the moral responsibility for putting their children in these situations,” Krikorian said. “It’s the same as if you took out a mortgage and then couldn’t keep up with the payments. You and your children would be evicted from the house.”

At a rally earlier this month to demand the release of the Reyes brothers, several students who could receive a green card under the DREAM Act told their stories.

“I am one of the reasons why they should pass the DREAM Act,” said Walter Lara, an Argentine student who almost got deported earlier this year before being given a reprieve similar to the one that enabled the Reyes brothers to go free Nov. 20. “And there are 65,000 other reasons every year why they should approve the DREAM Act.”

Lara was referring to the estimated number of undocumented students who annually graduate from U.S. high schools. It is estimated there may be almost two million DREAM Act candidates living here illegally.

A former Miami Dade College student who graduated in computer animation, Lara is now 23 — but he was only 3 when in 1989 his family brought him from Argentina, fleeing from an economic crisis.

Lara’s life in the United States began to crumble in February when immigration officers detained him while en route to install DirecTV satellite dishes near the Port of Miami.

A Reprieve

Marked for deportation in July, Lara was eventually released and given a one-year reprieve.

One of the Reyes brothers, Guillermo, also recently graduated in computer animation at Miami Dade College.

Jesús is still a student there taking criminal justice courses at the Kendall campus.

Jesús and Guillermo were detained by immigration officers who showed up at their home at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 12. Their father, who was just getting home from his all-night job, managed to leave to contact a lawyer and warn his wife and third son, Marcos, who had not arrived from their own all-night jobs. They all avoided detention.

Marcos, who was 13 when the family arrived from Venezuela, is now a Florida International University computer science student.

At a recent rally at MDC, Jesús Reyes likened the fight for passage of the DREAM Act to the decades-old civil rights fight led by Martin Luther King Jr.

“The fight for the DREAM Act is definitely the fight for civil rights of the 21st century,” Jesús told the rally.