In college and undocumented: One student’s story of waiting for the DREAM Act


Sarah Kim cannot reveal her real name or have her photo in the newspaper.  But she is interested in journalism, and believes in the power of information.  That is why she agreed to be a spokesperson for young adults who are eligible for benefits under the DREAM Act. 

She often goes to college fairs in Chicago to learn about internships or colleges she might like to transfer to after she finishes her two-year community college degree this winter.  The admissions counselors there are impressed with her academic credentials, and the fact that she speaks three languages. But after she promises the college admissions counselor she will get back in touch, she doesn’t.


Immigration reform advocates are grimly strategizing for a longer-than-expected push to pass a bill that would give a path to citizenship for a million or more immigrant teens and young adults who were raised and educated in the U.S. but are technically undocumented.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, got a setback September 21, when a Senate vote did not make the two-thirds majority needed to attach it to the Department of Defense Authorization bill.  The vote detached all proposed amendments to the bill, according to Olivia Park, a program associate with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), which is based in Los Angeles, with affiliate organizations in Chicago and Washington.

Korean American political activist organizations, along with organizations representing other immigrant groups, have come out in support of the DREAM Act, which now has a nine-year history of ups and downs in Washington since its introduction.  It is estimated that 20 percent of all Korean Americans are undocumented.  Young adult undocumented immigrants age 18 through 30 could qualify for benefits supplied by the DREAM Act.
In the wake of the failure of the “motion to proceed” which would have allowed the amendments to the defense bill, Park said that the upcoming election November 2 is making Republicans extremely risk-averse.  A vote of 60 in favor of the amendments would have allowed the bill to go ahead, she said, but not one Republican voted in favor of the motion to proceed with the amendments, she reported.  Of 59 Democrats, three voted against it.

One of them was DREAM Act champion Harry Reid, who voted “no” due to a technical issue, Park explained.  “He cannot reintroduce the bill unless he has voted no on it previously,” she said, “I think maybe he just wanted to leave that option open.”  In the recent past, at least two Republicans have been in favor the DREAM Act, she said.

Significantly, Park said, right before the vote took place, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) proposed that the Republicans would be on board to vote for the motion to proceed on the amendments if all could agree the first 20 amendments would not include a law on immigration. “That was a direct stab at DREAM Act,” she said.  McConnell’s proposal was shot down, “but it showed how they were trying to become really unified to block this.”

The DREAM Act, if passed as proposed, would make it possible for a certain category of young, U.S. educated students to earn a path to citizenship.  These are students whose parents either were undocumented when they came to the U.S., or somehow became undocumented after entering the U.S. legally to work or go to college.  The minor children of parents who become undocumented carry their parents’ undocumented status, which does not change when they become legal adults.

Not having citizenship often forces these students into low-wage jobs where they can more easily avoid producing documentation. Many stay in low-wage jobs even if they manage to earn a college education.  

Undocumented college students usually have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to a state-funded college in the state where they grew up.  Making citizens of these youth who are low-risk, educated, and Americans in every respect but their legal status has had broad appeal across both parties in the recent past.  It is only more recently that the issue has been polarized across partisan lines, Park pointed out.

Critics of the DREAM Act have referred to it as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, suggesting forgiveness for breaking a law. Proponents of the DREAM Act have objected to that term, pointing out that prospective DREAM Act beneficiaries were brought into this country as minors and have therefore broken no laws.

In Minnesota, the Immigration Law Center (ILC) has advocated for immigration reform, including the DREAM Act, along with pro-immigration grassroots organizations in the state, and some national organizations.  The energy in Minnesota has mainly come from the Latino community, ILC director John Keller said, although the ILC has seen people from 97 countries come through its doors in the past year alone.

On Keller’s informal list of DREAM Act-eligible people he has worked with in the Twin Cities area are African, Laotian, Hmong and other Asian people, as well as Latino youth, he said.  Last count, there were about 500 about whom he has heard informally, he added.

“We had an opportunity in Minnesota with the DREAM Act because we have had two favorable senators,” Keller said, referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken.  Both are on the judiciary committee. In general, the two have not been pressured enough on this issue, he said.

States have introduced their own DREAM Acts, which would make in-state tuition available to non-citizen residents of Minnesota.  However, Keller said, after two consecutive vetoes in Minnesota by Governor Tim Pawlenty, “we decided a change in tactics might be better than continuing to bring up this same measure in the legislature. One successful venture was to try to increase number of community colleges that have flat rate tuition; and now there are about 22 colleges that fall into this category.”

Illinois, which has a large population of DREAM Act-eligible Korean Americans, passed its own state DREAM Act in 2003, which gives all resident students the claim to lower in-state tuition to publicly-funded colleges.  (see related profile of Sarah Kim next page)

DREAM Act has had traction among Republicans in past legislative sessions as a bill that would help keep educated future employees and entrepreneurs in the country.  That kind of language is rarely heard these days, Park said.  “The way people are coming out against the bill now, just prior to election time it is all very much disregarding those values, how this isn’t just about immigration but about students and the future generation of America.  It doesn’t come out like that at all.  It is just about amnesty, and they are using that kind of messaging.”

Through the years, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), one of three original co-authors of the act, continues to be its champion, along with Sen. Reid. Key cabinet members, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who also held that post under the Bush Administration, has said it will be good for the military and good for America, Park said.  Despite the many forces in support of the bill, “the Republican Party has decided to take a unified stance against it,” she added. 

Keller said his organization has worked successfully on pro-immigration reform interests cooperatively with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and he believes that business interests are still behind immigration reform, even though no Republicans in Congress will support it right now.  “It’s just that the political toxicity of the whole issue has contributed to not even one Republican voting for this bill.”

Bill Blazar, senior vice-president of public affairs and business development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has been working with a large group of business organizations on immigration reform since 2006.  “I don’t sense that there’s any less support among business interests for not only the DREAM Act, but for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.  Blazar refers to the DREAM Act and the larger immigration reform bill as a “victim of the 2010 election.”   He has been writing and advocating for immigration reform in public forums on behalf of the Chamber, and wrote an editorial in 2009 for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune citing why immigration reform would make sense for Minnesota businesses.

Blazar said he is hoping the bill can be reintroduced at the beginning of the 2011 session, before the Congress gets caught up in other huge and time-consuming bills, like climate-change legislation or another economic stimulus package.  

Had the DREAM Act been introduced in August 2009 instead of August 2010, Blazar ventured, “there probably would have been bipartisan voting and it probably would have passed.  [Republicans] are probably asking themselves ‘well, why didn’t he bring it up last year in a non-election year?'” Blazar remarked.  Whatever Sen. Reid’s motivation was, the timing of the vote “probably just reinforces their theory that he is bringing it up just because of politics,” he said.

Minnesota depends on its immigrant workforce in the Twin Cities, and also in many rural southern and southwestern communities of the state, Blazar said.  “I think most of our motivation has to do with having a sufficient number of workers to fuel economic growth now and in the future” he said, “Among other factors, a sufficient workforce is also key to growth.” 

NAKASEC is regrouping its strategy for the time period between the election November 2 and the end of the 2010 session, the so-called “Lame Duck Congress” during which outgoing legislators have traditionally taken more risks and voted on bills they wish to have as part of their lawmaking legacy.  That session could be a better time for the DREAM Act to be enacted, Park remarked.

How to do it is an ongoing strategic and tactical question for NAKASEC and other supporters, Park said.  “It was it’s own law as introduced,” she said, “and plenty of people think it should go ahead as a stand-alone bill, that we should just push Sen. Reid to put it on the agenda for consideration.”  There are other experts who worry that introducing a stand-alone DREAM Act could make it vulnerable to getting attached to a lot of unwanted amendments, which could negate a lot of key qualities in the bill. 

NAKASEC has continued to push for the right of students who fall under the DREAM Act to petition to make family members legal residents, in an effort to not separate families because of this law, Park explained.  “As of now, the DREAM Act would give status to one million or more students, but then would then put the other 10 million in jeopardy if the DREAM Act went through in this climate,” she said.  “We know DREAM Act is so important, and that it’s always something we will fight for.  But in terms of how it’s fought for, we are concerned about what happens to these students and their families.” 

It’s all a sort of a sad academic exercise for her right now, because she knows it cannot go farther than talking.  She is undocumented.

Nine years ago, her family came to Chicago from South America, and before that, her parents had immigrated from Korea. She was 10 years old when she arrived in Chicago with her parents, two sisters, and grandmother.  Her parents had applied for a work permit, and after they arrived, her parents asked the employer, a restaurant, to sponsor them for citizenship. The employer agreed, but halfway through the process, the business closed without notice.  Her family was left without a sponsor, and their visas expired.  Since then, they have all been undocumented.

Kim and her mother, father and sister all have Social Security numbers, because the process of applying for citizenship was partially completed when the sponsor left.  She knows this makes her more fortunate than other undocumented students.

“Because I have a Social Security number, I can get a drivers’ license.  But that still doesn’t allow me to apply for FAFSA, and I still do not have a valid work permit, because it expired.”
FAFSA is the federal application for student aid, which would make it possible for her to apply for federally-subsidized student loans.  Without them, she cannot afford four-year college tuition, she said. She also cannot apply for government-funded scholarships.

She currently attends a two-year community college in the Chicago area. Because of the Illinois DREAM Act, passed in 2003, she and all other Illinois residents qualify for the lower in-state tuition rate, irrespective of immigration status. She can afford it, but in one more semester, she will be at the end of a two-year program.  Without the DREAM Act, she cannot go further with her college education. Community college has been very easy, she said; she wishes she could go to a college that would be academically challenging. 

Kim said she is thinking of majoring in accounting, and possibly English and psychology.  She is interested in accounting, she said, because she could earn  license as a certified public accountant, a desired credential in the job market.  A stable career is very important to her, she said.

Her parents are now both living in California. Her mother works as a sales person at a large international firm and her father teaches acupuncture at a college, and has an acupuncture practice.  Her parents moved there because they wanted to work in an even larger Korean community than Chicago because their English is not excellent, and they also wanted to make use of their fluency in both Spanish and Korean.  They also wanted to blend in.

Her grandmother runs the household in Chicago for the three sisters, and her parents support all of them.  She and her older sister have part-time jobs and try to contribute to the family income as much as they can, she said.

If the DREAM Act were passed, it would make a big difference to her family, she said.  “We’ve been doing our best, academically as well as living together under the present circumstances.  With the DREAM Act, my sisters and I could attend college without having to worry about my parents having to pay full tuition. We would be able to get [loans through] FAFSA.”  Private scholarships, the only kind she can apply for right now, are few and far between, she said, even for those who have a good academic background.  Loans are a fact of life.

After college, she said, with the DREAM Act in place, she and her sisters “would be able to apply for jobs as professionals, without any fears of getting caught.” 

At her community college, she said, she has met a few students in the same position as she is; they are Hispanic students, she said. Everyone is wondering what will come next.

“From my perspective, I want to say that state of not being a citizen really affects someone so deep,” Kim said.  “To the point of affecting who they are.  It’s just really matters.  It affects, ultimately, all aspects of these students’ lives.”

Kim said she knows that undocumented students are really hoping for progress on this issue.  That’s why they are going to school and trying to succeed.  The recent defeat of the DREAM Act, “on behalf of students who really try hard, it is just really disappointing and crushes all your dreams.” 

Undocumented students are trying to meet all the expectations of their parents and school, but have no assurance of meeting their goals, if their undocumented status continues.  “You have to try 10 times harder than all the students around you…  We can be a positive contribution to this country if only we are allowed to.” 

In Kim’s case, she said, she has a personal need to belong somewhere.  She never lived in Korea, and she cannot go back to South America.  “I have never lived in Korea, so coming here did give us a chance to anchor and have a stronghold in some place.”  The Chicago community is unique; because of Chicago’s diversity, they have been able to connect to their Korean background  as well as to their Hispanic background. “We very much feel at home here. Half of my life, the half I have been more conscious of, and examining, has been spent here. So, I will always call it my home.”

Kim says she does not think everyone should be allowed to be a citizen. “Only those who can show they have the motivation to really do something better for this country.  Those students should definitely be given a chance.”