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A New American Dream

When you unfurl the acronym, the DREAM Act becomes less of a clever moniker and more of a mouthful. It stands for the Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, and it has been bouncing around Congress for a little over a decade.

After its first introduction by Sen. Orin Hitch (R-Utah) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2001, it has maintained steady Democratic backing but acquiring and shedding Republican support for the past 12 years.

With another four years, President Obama promised to set undocumented youth on the course for citizenship — but only after fulfilling specific requirements and going through a rigorous, heavily monitored application process lasting at least six years.

The transformation from a DREAMer to an American citizen is a long process, but Victor Yengle is looking forward to it.

Victor, now an economics student at the University of Florida, was 11 when his family made the move: Peru to Sarasota, Fla. He grew up there, eventually graduating from Sarasota High School in 2006. He is now 23 years old and working on his economics degree.

Getting here wasn’t easy, though. His parents had to work odd hours at multiple jobs, and at first, the language barrier created a sense of isolation. Despite all this, Victor felt he experienced growing up in the United States the same as any other naturalized citizen.

Every morning of middle and high school he atonally recited the Pledge of Allegiance, having memorized it long ago like his fellow classmates. He celebrates the Fourth of July in earnest. He understands nostalgic references to “the 90’s.”

“I am attached to this country in every single way,” he said.

After graduating from Sarasota High, Victor attended Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., for three years before applying to the University of Florida.

When he did, administrators told him his student visa was invalid and that he would be considered an international student, responsible for three times the amount of in-state tuition, despite being raised and educated in Florida.

He returned to Sarasota, but did not fall into a stasis: In 2011 he helped found UnidosNow, a Sarasota-based organization devoted to mobilizing Southwest Florida’s Hispanic communities and raising awareness of the challenges faced by these communities.

He then successfully enrolled at UF and devoted his time to the community. He is president of Coalition of Hispanics Integrating Spanish Speakers through Advocacy and Service (CHISPAS), a member of the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice and a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that fights for immigrant worker justice in Florida. Among many acts of advocacy, he has gone on a six-day water fast in front of Publix headquarters in Lakeland to promote an increase in wages and better working conditions for Florida immigrant farm workers.

“DREAMers are the new frontiers of advocacy,” Angela Kelley, Vice President of Immigration Policy at The Center for American Progress, said.

Although Victor is deeply invested in his community and culturally identifies himself as an American, on paper he is considered an outsider. Back in his birth country, any Peruvian would consider him an outsider — to them, he’s an American.

DREAMers like Victor describe this feeling of homelessness as being “neither here nor there.” Others have called these undocumented youth the “1.5 Generation.”

Should the act finally pass, Victor’s — and 2.1 million other eligible DREAMers’ — American citizenship would be well in reach. In reach, but not necessarily within easy reach.

Eric Castillo, director of the Institute of Hispanic Latino Cultures at UF, stresses the rigor of the program.

“This is not an amnesty or a free ride,” he said. “The DREAM Act creates a pathway, not a guarantee, toward citizenship so students will have to work hard to receive status.”

Hard work, but many deem it worthwhile for not only the DREAMers but also the economy.

The Center for American Progress recently conducted a study of the economic benefits of the DREAM Act and found it would boost the economy directly and indirectly.

Directly, the DREAM Act would boost the economy by a total of $148 million, supporting an aggregate 19 percent increase in earnings by 2030.

Indirectly, the increase in educated workers would translate into more people with higher earnings — with a $5.6 billion increase in income tax revenue — which would generate a greater consumption of goods and services. In the end, the act would generate $181 billion and contribute to the creation of 16,000 jobs each year.

Florida would be one of the most greatly affected states should the DREAM Act finally be passed.

Florida clocks in at fourth for percentage of immigrants in the population. Approximately 1 million of the immigrant population is unauthorized, making up 5.7 percent of the state’s population. Florida also has the highest percent of immigrants — both documented and undocumented — to have completed high school; yet for the many DREAMers within this percentage, the next step in education is legally impossible. Florida has also had a rocky history at the cross-section between citizenship and education: this is the first year that American-born students whose parents immigrated without being documented will be eligible for in-state college tuition.

“The immigration system is in desperate need of an update,” Kelley said.

For Victor and the rest of the 1.5 Generation — those who struggle to renew driver’s licenses, apply for college and contribute to the society that they have always known — this is a fact that is always apparent.

This article originally appeared in The Fine Print, a student publication at the University of Florida that receives funding and training as a member of the Campus Progress journalism network.

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