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The first time Ramon came to the United States, he was 9 years old and had a tourist visa. His mother was the only member of her large family remaining in Mexico, and she brought Ramon and his brother to Detroit to visit her parents and siblings here.
After their visas expired they returned to Mexico, but Ramon — who agreed to tell Metro Times about life as an unauthorized immigrant if his real name not be used — remembers his parents' subsequent arguments. His mother wanted to come back to the United States illegally to join her family members, who were legal residents. His father did not want to move, fearing the repercussions of getting caught crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and of living with undocumented status.
"He didn't want to ruin our lives. It took him a while to decide to keep the family together," Ramon says.
His mother went first and made it to Detroit. Ramon, his father and brother followed, crossing the border into Texas with a guide leading them through the desert.
"We were young enough not to recognize how dangerous it was. We were not afraid. My dad though, I could tell he was trying to remain calm," Ramon recalls.
Since that crossing six years ago, Ramon and his brother have gone to school, learned English and made friends in their southeast Michigan neighborhood. After Ramon graduated from high school, he enrolled at a local university to study engineering. He had scholarships to help pay tuition, but those ended at his public university after Michigan voters passed Proposal 2, banning scholarships based on ethnicity and race.
Now he works in construction and takes classes at a community college, planning a return to university when he can afford it. He'll have to pay international student tuition rates and he'll have no way to work legally here when he graduates. Applying for legal residency, he says, would draw unneeded attention to his family, which now includes a sister born here. They have learned to live with the constant fear and threat of deportation.
Ramon is among the estimated 65,000 graduates from American high schools each year who are undocumented immigrants and part of the roughly 12 million unauthorized people living — and, in the case of about 8.3 million of them, working — in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Michigan has about 110,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the center.
If and how to address the situation and immigration status of Ramon and people like him — undocumented young adults brought by parents to the United States as children — is one portion of the bigger immigration debate.
In one camp are supporters of the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide young adults like Ramon a pathway to citizenship. The legislation recognizes that children of illegal immigrants are not guilty of their parents' transgressions, supporters say, and therefore should be provided a route to legal, permanent residency in the only country some of them have known. Having grown up in the United States and gone to public schools, society has already "invested" in them, the argument goes.
But opponents of the plan call it "amnesty hidden in an educational policy" and fear it would encourage more illegal immigration. With a Supreme Court mandate that undocumented children must be educated in public schools, concerns about costs abound if more people bring children here knowing they can achieve legal status someday.
"We're not punishing the children for illegal acts of the parents. We're merely not rewarding them," says Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports reducing immigration and strengthening border security. "I know it's a sensitive matter. If there were one or two we'd all be willing to make an exception."
Legislators in both houses of Congress re-introduced the DREAM Act in March, a fifth attempt at its passage. It's failed in the four previous Congresses, getting as far as House approval nearly two years ago. But now, with President Barack Obama and his administration touting the need for immigration reform and a Democratic Congress, supporters say the time might be right for it. As a senator, Obama was a co-sponsor of the measure.
"I think there's a certain amount of momentum building in favor of the DREAM Act in part because the folks who would be most directly affected by it are some of the most sympathetic people around," says Jonathan Weinberg, professor of law at Wayne State University who specializes in immigration.
If the measure passes, young adults who are undocumented could apply for conditional permanent resident status if they have been in the United States continually for at least five years, beginning when they were younger than 16, and if they have clean criminal records and attain high school graduation or college acceptance. To gain permanent residency, they would need to complete two years of college or serve at least two years in the U.S. military.
"We all recognize the value of higher education and service to our country," DREAM co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said when introducing the bill March 26. "To serve these federal policy interests by giving legal stability and opportunity to young people caught in the limbo of our laws through no fault of their own is the right thing to do."
The Senate version has 22 co-sponsors while the House's has 53, including Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), the only member of Michigan's congressional delegation to sign on so far.
Dane calls the legislation "replete" with problems.
"It creates a massive administrative burden on our federal bureaucracy that's already maxed out," he says. "There is a component of the DREAM Act that requires if somebody is eligible, they have to have been here since they were 16. How are you going to prove that?"
He predicts enactment would lead to "massive document fraud" as applicants tried to meet the terms that they were here when they were younger than 16 and that they attended school. "Can you imagine the phony school transcripts?" he says. "I also might note that most of the 9/11 terrorist posed as students."
While the DREAM Act is federal legislation, it has implications at the state level. It would allow states to charge undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, a measure school administrators say could help increase their enrollments.
"The restrictions against undocumented immigrants adversely affects Michigan by encouraging some Latinos to drop out of high school since they would have little or no chance to attend college here," says Jorge Chinea, director of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies at Wayne State University. "Those who do complete their high school diplomas end up leaving the state in search of higher education opportunities elsewhere, indirectly contributing to a 'brain drain' of bright, capable, young minds out of Michigan."
Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, says the state's 15 four-year public universities would benefit greatly from the DREAM ACT.
"It would boost the enrollments," he says. "We're not at capacity at our institutions."
But a group of state legislators say, in effect, enrollments should not be built on undocumented students. House Bill 4188 would require Michigan public universities to check students' status before they could receive loans. Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville) introduced the bill earlier this year. It has 25 co-sponsors.
Agema says that because the state appropriates money to universities — roughly $5,300 per full-time student — the Legislature can make such demands. "When we appropriate money, we can't tell them how to spend it, but we can sure as heck not give it to them if they're doing something illegal," he says.
Still, Ramon argues that without the DREAM Act, children in the United States are denied having a better life through an education they are willing to work for.
"Those who do want it are being blocked, their talents are being suppressed, when they could be enriching America," he says. "The DREAM act would solve this problem, providing equality of opportunity to inspired youth that want to enrich America."
Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org.