Minnesota's undocumented students await action on Dream Act

Supporters of Dream Act
In this 2007 file photo, students and immigrants march in New York in support of the Dream Act, a bill that would open a path to immigration for college-bound students who have lived most of their lives in the United States but lack legal immigrant status.

Like hundreds of thousands of other children, Alex came to the United States as a child. He put down roots in Minnesota, earning a 3.4 GPA at a suburban high school and playing varsity sports.

"I've grown up in the United States just like every other Minnesotan," he wrote last week to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

But when Alex graduated from his suburban high school, he found that he wasn't like every other Minnesotan. His grades and athletic pursuits weren't the same ticket to college they were for his friends.

That's because Alex is an undocumented immigrant. MPR News has agreed not to use Alex's last name because he fears deportation.

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"The summer that I graduated from high school, it was very stressful [not] knowing what I was going to do with my life, while all my teammates from the sports I was in, they were all going to colleges," he wrote. "They were all going somewhere in life."

Alex's future in the United States could hinge on the federal Dream Act, a bill that would grant a path to citizenship to up to one million immigrant youths who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, if they complete high school or have a GED and pursue two years of college or military service.

The bipartisan federal legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has attached as an amendment to a defense bill, could come to a vote this week. Franken and Minnesota's other U.S. senator, Amy Klobuchar, are among its sponsors.

"Nobody's handing them any sort of 'get out of jail free' card."

This is different from a Dream Act proposed at the Minnesota Legislature, which would give immigrants not legally in the country the right to pay in-state tuition.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said about 500 young people a year might benefit in Minnesota from the federal legislation.

"Nobody's handing them any sort of 'get out of jail free' card or amnesty, as it's often portrayed," Keller said. "This is a path for them to take very seriously the opportunities of serving the country, of improving themselves with a degree."

Alex, who is now a student at the University of Minnesota, will be watching closely. He came to the United States on a tourist visa with his parents at the age of 8, and has lived in Minnesota for the past 12 years.

He put himself through community college to earn an associate's degree, and transferred to the University of Minnesota this year as a junior.

Alex is taking one class at a time, which is all his family can afford since he pays the higher out-of-state tuition. Alex's mother and brother work restaurant jobs so that one son in the family can go to college.

What should happen to a young person like Alex is at the heart of a national debate.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, opposes the federal Dream Act. Drazkowski said Minnesota already spends too much to educate, medicate and incarcerate immigrants who are not authorized to be in the country. Giving a student like Alex citizenship, he said, would impose an additional burden on the state.

"Obviously his family has made poor decisions in the past. And for us to go forward and reward decisions that are in violation of the law -- unfortunately [it puts] people like Alex in very difficult situations," Drazkowski said. "We have to look down the road at the next group of Alexes who are going to ... potentially be in the same type of situation because of this bad policy that we have."

Drazkowski said if the nation enforced laws against illegal immigration, students would not be put into such difficult situations.

Drazkowski, who supports the Arizona law that gives police the authority to question the immigration status of people they suspect are not legally in the country, said he plans to introduce a similar bill in Minnesota when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

But immigration is an issue that has created some unusual allies. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce -- which supports Minnesota Forward, a group backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer -- is a strong proponent of the Dream Act.

Bill Blazar, the chamber's senior vice president, said Minnesota's employers need the Dream Act because it would help provide a source of young, productive workers. He said immigrants could help fuel a recovery and economic expansion.

"Without those workers being available and well-trained and ready to go to work, then as Minnesota companies get the opportunity to expand they'll do one of two other things. They'll either grow someplace else where there are workers, or replace workers with machinery," Blazar said. "In other words, they'll automate."

Students who qualify for the Dream Act would receive conditional legal residency for six years. After they earn a college degree or complete military service they could apply for a green card, or permission to work in the United States. It would take them another five years to attain citizenship.