WASHINGTON - A group of Arizona students went door-to-door asking friends and businesses for funds to help them take a message to Congress: They want to continue their education here in the country they have always known as home.
The seven from Arizona were among hundreds Tuesday attending the first Senate hearing on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship, through college or military service, for undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children.
“We see ourselves as assets to the community, not burdens,” said Arizona State University student Reyna Montoya, 20, after the hearing.
A former ASU student, Angelica Hernandez, was recognized at the outset of the Judiciary Committee hearing by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Hernandez, a recent graduate who was named outstanding mechanical engineering senior, is an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 9.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testifying on behalf of the Obama administration, called passage of the DREAM Act a “priority” for the administration. She said it is important to the nation as a whole and to the mission of Homeland Security.
“Not only is it the right thing, it is the smart thing,” said Napolitano, a former Arizona governor. “Both Democrats and Republicans have voiced support for this commonsense bill because it is important to our economic competitiveness . . . our military readiness . . . and there is quite frankly no reason not to pass this legislation.”
She said the DREAM Act will help her department enforce immigration laws.
“It simply doesn’t make sense from a law-enforcement perspective to expend limited law-enforcement resources on young people who pose no threat to public safety, have grown up here, and want to contribute to our country by serving in the military or going to college,” Napolitano testified.
While the act will not solve the need for comprehensive immigration reform, she said, it will at least eliminate those students covered by the DREAM Act from the population subject to immigration enforcement while the broader immigration debate continues.
A report from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation last December estimated that enacting the bill would save about $1.4 billion from 2011 to 2020.
But Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, testified that while the DREAM Act has merit, the bill as written has several problems.
“While illegal immigrants raised in the United States do not have a right to stay in our country, they certainly have a claim on our conscience,” Camarota said. “We should act on that claim, but we should do so in a manner that limits unintended consequences.”
He testified that those unintended consequences could include future illegal immigration, fraudulent applications for citizenship and short-term costs to support the students and workers who would be affected by the act. He suggested changes to the bill to address those issues.
Montoya, who is studying political science and transborder studies with a minor in dance, called Tuesday’s hearing a step forward but said she is looking forward to the next step, since her future is uncertain while the DREAM Act is debated.
“We really want to stay here and contribute on a greater scale,” said Montoya, who wants to go to law school after she graduates.
But she is in limbo right now, not in deportation proceedings but not able to apply for state or federal funding to help pay for classes, just one of the thousands of students who are trying to navigate her way through higher education and lawful employment. She won private scholarship money based on her grades for the past few years, but that fund is now used up and she is left looking for another way to pay for her last year at ASU.
“I wouldn’t mind paying out-of-state tuition, if I had the venue to work for something,” said Montoya. She said she hopes a bipartisan conversation on the bill will continue.
“I would encourage people to look into the facts before assuming any position,” Montoya said.