By Mary Ellen Flannery
Parents, students and NEA educators cheered the Obama administration’s announcement today that it would stop the deportation of hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers”—those young adults who arrived in this country as children—and instead provide them with work visas.
“It’s wonderful news,” said Matilde Vallejos, a student services worker with Maryland’s Montgomery County schools. “We have this group of kids who are really talented, really smart and bilingual—and we want to send them back? While other countries complain about their brain drain to America, we’re creating our own brain drain here. We are getting rid of a lot of talent.”
It doesn’t make much sense to Vallejos—and apparently, not to President Obama either. Earlier this week, he told a Cleveland audience, “If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity from all over the world, we won’t deport hardworking, responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here.”
It’s a matter of what’s good for this country and its recovering economy, and also what’s good for these students, who have lived almost their entire lives within the borders of the United States. “I’ve worked with kids who have been deported,” said Vallejos. “And it’s such a shock to them. It’s like they’re going to a foreign land. They are Americans, in their every tradition.”
Under the president’s “deferred action” executive order, those students who are already under deportation proceedings, or those who qualify for the DREAM Act and have yet to come forward to federal Homeland Security officials, will be allowed to stay in this country. “Deferred action” will last for two years and can be renewed. It does not create a pathway to citizenship, or even provide permanent legal status.
Officials estimate the new policy could cover as many as 800,000 people These are students like Isabel Castillo, who left Mexico as a 6-year-old and graduated in the top 2 percent from her Virginia high school and magna cum laude from her college, but works off the books as a small-town waitress, or Monji Dolon, who left Bangladesh more than 20 years ago and recently graduated from the University of North Carolina as a skilled web developer.
“Would American be better off if we sent him back to Bangladesh?” asked Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in a DREAM Act hearing last year. “Of course not… We could use people with Monji’s talents in America.”
These are students who “could really help our society,” Vallejos said.
To be eligible for “deferred action,” applicants have to be between 15 and 30 years old; have lived in this country for five years; and have arrived here before they turned 16. They also must have no criminal record, and have earned a high school diploma, and either be in school or have served in the military.
These qualifications are similar to the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that has been blocked for years by Republicans on Capitol Hill. That bill would have created a route to permanent status for qualified students and veterans, as well as reductions in tuition at public colleges and universities.
The cost of higher education remains a serious problem for undocumented students, Vallejos noted. “Many of our students choose community colleges, because it gives them the ability to live at home and get a job,” she said. “But when they get there, and realize they have to pay this enormous tuition, they get very discouraged.”
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