Mica seems like an average American college freshman. She works hard in school and volunteers for the school paper because she’s crazy about writing and wants to be a journalist.
But she’s also an illegal alien.
Mica, who has asked that only her first name be used, came to the U.S. with her mom, dad and little brother when she was 8 years old. They came on a temporary visa meant for families on vacation, and though her parents told her the truth, she knew to say she was going to Disney World if anyone asked.
About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools every year, but once they reach age 18, they are considered the same as other adult undocumented people, and can be deported if discovered.
For the children of illegal immigrants, this can mean the only country they remember living in doesn’t want them to work or vote or drive. It can mean being invisible.
“It’s a great example of how people create legal categories without bothering to think about the real human impact,” said Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF.
Because they have no immediate relatives with U.S. citizenship or legal residency, undocumented children can face detainment and deportation, and just like other immigrants without special skills or circumstances, have virtually no path for citizenship.
“These are individuals who have grown up in the U.S., and for many, if not most of them, this really is their culture,” Ortiz said. “Unfortunately, what you’ll find in politics is the fairness and logic arguments only get you so far. If those arguments would have worked, we never would have had slavery or segregation.”
The DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, was created to provide children and young adults like Mica a pathway to citizenship. If passed, those who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been here for at least five years could obtain conditional permanent residency by attending college or serving in the military for at least two years.
For Mica and other undocumented children, the biggest challenges start as they approach adulthood and face their futures.
“I have this huge weight on my shoulders,” she said. “Sometimes it leaves; it always comes back.”
Mica attended high school in a suburb of Miami, where she took advanced classes and then interned at an established newspaper. She got into UF and several other schools, but because of her status, she has to pay out-of-state tuition in Florida, where she’s lived for over a decade.
As an undocumented student, she was also ineligible for federal grants and scholarships and can’t drive or work, now or after she graduates.
There were disappointments, but Santa Fe Community College accepted her immediately and was affordable even with out-of-state tuition.
While she’s happy to pursue her “one true love,” journalism, Mica wishes her family could be with her as she does. Feeling the financial and emotional strain of living in legal limbo, Mica’s father, mother and little brother returned to Argentina in August. Mica chose to stay and finish the future they worked so hard to help her start.
And because of policy changes in the ‘90s that made returning to the country within 10 years of their illegal residency criminal, and punishable by prison time, it could be a long time before they see each other again.
Mica’s family and the 12 million other people living in the U.S. illegally could embark on the long road to proper citizenship, but the best case scenario, for parents, spouses or children of an existing U.S. citizen, takes at least five years. The next best cases can take decades. For those without an immediate relative or a college degree and job offer in the country (or special cases like star athletes or wealthy potential investors), gaining permanent legal residence is nearly impossible.
The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, would allow these children and young adults to stay in the country, so long as they earn a high school diploma or GED, have good moral character (a term yet to be defined exactly, but probably something like a clean criminal record) and complete the necessary requirements. Then they can eventually transition from conditional permanent residency to citizenship.
It has been almost 10 years, and the act has been reintroduced several times, most recently in late September. But it’s never had enough votes to pass. The act has faced opposition not only from Republican conservatives but also from some traditionally liberal organizations and individuals who struggle with use of the act as a recruitment tool by the military.
Advocates of the DREAM Act have also faced criticism from other immigrant-rights groups who feel more comprehensive reform should be the movement’s priority.
“We have an act which is not perfect, that leaves much to be desired, but my argument is that we need to support it because real lives are at stake,” said Ortiz, a third-generation immigrant and veteran. “Human rights are at stake here.“
Vickie Mena, program coordinator for the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and local activist, along with the other members of the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, hopes to make the dream a reality.
“This is going to be the year it passes,” Mena said.