WASHINGTON — As her fellow college graduates busy themselves with spamming every available e-mail inbox with resumes, 25-year-old Lizbeth Mateo keeps to the same Los Angeles coffee shop she's worked in for the past five years.
A native of Mexico and an undocumented immigrant who's lived in the U.S. for more than a decade, Mateo earned a bachelor's degree last year from California State University, Northridge. Though she said she'd like to find a job that would allow her to give back in some way to the low-income community where she grew up, Mateo's immigration status has put a cap on what she's able to achieve.
One could say that she's still waiting for a dream. "You're not allowed to work where you grow up or have a job that's related to your field," Mateo said of her undocumented status.
It's been just more than two years since the last version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act failed to pass the Senate. Reintroduced in both chambers of Congress in March, the most recent incarnation of the DREAM Act would provide a path toward legal U.S. residency for students such as Mateo.
To mobilize supporters, Mateo and others in her situation have taken to the Internet's social media to spread their message. Using the Web to invite other supporters into the fray, undocumented bloggers and Tweeters across the country have formed a coalition called United We Dream. The group rolled out the countrywide "Back to School DREAM Act Day of Action" demonstration in September. Floridians hosted 13 demonstrations across the state in September, half of them in Miami.
Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, updates a "Corruption Chronicles" blog that tracks the progress of undocumented immigrants through higher education. He said that the DREAM Act threatened to draw even more immigrants to the United States illegally than immigrations bills that offered amnesty.
Matias Ramos, 23, a recent University of California, Los Angeles, graduate and Washington resident, said that undocumented people of his generation were becoming less afraid to speak out against what they saw as injustice. On the Web, as he is in person, Ramos is an unafraid activist, maintaining a blog on the topic and reaching out to his Twitter following to spread news.
Ramos and others hope that policy work on the DREAM Act will begin in earnest next year, either as part of more comprehensive immigration revisions or as a standalone bill.
"I think a lot of us are coming together and say enough is enough," said Ramos, who's a native of Argentina. "We're ready to lead this debate and say, 'This is what the undocumented population is about and what it's not.' "
Undocumented and born abroad, Mateo and Ramos defeated steep odds for their degrees. As a group, Latinos historically trail their classmates of other races, according to Pew Hispanic Center data, and being foreign-born widens the gap.
Though not necessarily undocumented, only 29 percent of young, foreign-born Latinos interviewed in Pew's 2009 National Survey of Latinos planned to pursue bachelor's degrees. That's compared with 60 percent of those who are native-born. After age 18, only one-fifth of foreign-born young adults surveyed remained enrolled in school, representing a presence that's half that of native-born enrollees.
Cinthya Alvares, an undocumented 22-year-old, hasn't been able to find time to get her GED after nearly a decade in the U.S. Smuggled with her parents by human traffickers from Honduras when she was a teen, Alvares is making her third attempt at earning a GED since she dropped out of high school at 17. She said she saw no way out of her two jobs, one at a cleaning service and the other at a restaurant.
Conservative groups such as Judicial Watch protest the progress of undocumented immigrants throughout the higher education system.
"There are people who are waiting to get into this country because they've patiently abided the law," Fitton said, "and those who cheat get these proposed benefits. Why would someone who is not a citizen be able to get resources that might otherwise be devoted to helping citizens?"
Qalim Cromer thinks there should be a better path. Cromer teaches a GED class at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington and works with first-generation and undocumented students.
He calls his work "plugging the dam," not fixing the problem of helping the undocumented access higher education but biding time until immigration legislation proceeds.
Unlike Ramos or Mateo, Alvares sees no path to college. If she thinks too long about her limitations, she panics. She doesn't dream; instead, she tells of the deportation nightmares that plague her.
"What if this is all I can do?" she asks Cromer in perfect English. "This is the max I can move on without papers." (The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Rogers, a graduate student in journalism from Elkhart, Ind., covers business and education.)
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