Question: I am an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. as a visitor at the age of three with my parents. For many years I had no idea that I had no immigration status. It was not until I wanted to apply for a driver’s permit that my parents informed me that I couldn’t because I am illegally here. I’ve been in the U.S. nearly all of my life, and have never returned to my native country. I do not even speak my native language. I recently graduated from high school and planned on going on to college, but I can’t because I’m not eligible for federal aide or scholarships due to my unlawful status. I’ve stayed in school, worked hard and have never been in trouble with the law, yet I can’t go to college, drive, have a bank account, work or even have a form of identification because I am not a resident of the country I have known all my life, and have called my home. Any advice you may offer would be greatly appreciated.
Answer: Your situation is very unfortunate, and sadly, somewhat common among young immigrants in the United States. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who have no way of legalizing their immigration status, despite the fact that they came here as children. These young people have spent their formative years in the United States, graduated from high school and many are talented individuals who would undoubtedly contribute much to their community, if given the chance. The only crime they’ve committed is having lived with their mothers and fathers, yet by the time they graduate from high school, all doors are shut in their face and the law provides no relief.
But now there is reason to hope. New legislation has been introduced that is intended to help undocumented immigrant students gain lawful status in the United States. The “DREAM Act” (“Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act”), provides undocumented students the opportunity to gain conditional permanent resident status provided they: (1) have lived in the United States for at least 5 years before the enactment of the Act, and were under the age of 16 at the time of entry; (2) have graduated from high school or have been accepted to a college or institution of higher education; (3) are of good moral character; and (4) are not deportable on account of a criminal conviction, alien smuggling or document fraud.
Undocumented students would then be permitted to convert their conditional status to that of lawful permanent resident, provided they meet one of the following criteria: (1) obtain a diploma from a junior college or trade school; (2) complete at least two years of a bachelor’s or graduate program; or (3) join the Armed Forces and if discharged, be honorably discharged. Those who cannot fulfill these requirements would have to show both a compelling reason why they cannot meet the requirements, and exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if they were removed from the U.S.
Finally, the DREAM Act would repeal a 1996 federal law that bars states from charging in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, bringing down the cost of attending college for scores of such immigrants. The bill is certainly an important and long overdue step towards removing the barriers to education and work faced by many undocumented children.