DENVER – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, met with immigrant students Friday to hear about their struggles after high school, and to talk about how he hopes to make it easier for them.
Bennet joined 32 other Senate colleagues on May 11 in re-introducing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – commonly known as the DREAM Act.
The bill that would give undocumented students who were brought to this country as children a chance to earn legal status if they graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and complete two years of post-secondary school or military service.
Friday morning, at a park near Denver’s West High School, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent heard first-hand from some of the students who would be impacted by such a bill.
‘I didn’t have a choice’
“I came here when I was 3,” said Luis Castaneda, 18. “I had no other option because my parents wanted a better life for us. I didn’t have a choice.”
“I represent thousands of students … I am undocumented and afraid.”
— Alicia, high school seniorCastaneda, who was born in Mexico City, will graduate from high school later this month and dreams of studying computer science and business. An honors student with a 3.5 GPA, he said he won a scholarship to Regis University but he can’t accept it because of his undocumented status.
So he will enroll at Metropolitan State College or the University of Colorado at Denver in the fall but he’ll have to pay out-of-state tuition rates, which will be a huge financial burden for his family.
“It’s depressing because I’ve come so far,” said Castaneda, the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “My mom and dad are really proud of me but they were never able to really contribute to my education the way they wanted to, because they’re always working to support our family.”
Another girl, who identified herself only as Alicia, told Bennet she would like to pursue a medical career but she isn’t sure how she’ll fund her schooling after she graduates from high school later this month.
“I represent thousands of students who are scared,” she said. “I am undocumented and afraid.”
Victor Galvan, with Longmont Youth for Equality, told Bennet that he’s disappointed President Obama has not done more for immigration reform.
He was blunt in his question for the senator: “What are you gonna do?”
“We’ve been doing our job, and (Obama) has not kept his promise,” Galvan said. “Right now, he’s not the person we expected him to be.”
‘It takes a long time’
Bennett advised Galvan to be patient. He said civil rights struggles sometimes take a long time to bring about results, and immigration reform is no different.
“It takes a long time sometimes to get these things moving,” he said. “But you’ve got to start someplace. I do think it’s important to build as broad a coalition as possible. There are a lot of people in this country that want this bill passed, and we need to bring them together.”
Bennet also urged the young people – and the community leaders who joined them in Sunken Gardens Park – to persevere.
“I know there’s disappointment that we haven’t gotten it done already,” he said.
An earlier version of the DREAM Act was defeated last year when the Senate was unable to muster the votes to end a Republican filibuster against it. It had already passed the House of Representatives and had the backing of a majority of the Senate.
“We’ve got to keep trying,” Bennet said. “We’re talking about young people that have never known any other country except the United States. We heard from some today who came here when they were two years old or three years old. They didn’t have any role to play in the decision that was made that brought them here. They’ve grown up in the United States, they’ve gone to school, they’ve worked hard and they have no place to go.”
“This is the farthest thing from amnesty you can imagine,” he added. “As a country, we should stop denying ourselves the benefit of the contribution that can be made by people who want to go into computer science or serve in our military, which is one reason that our Secretary of Defense has made one of his highest priorities the passage of the DREAM Act.”
‘This is a fresh start’
In the crowd gathered Friday morning was state Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a former DPS school board member.
The Colorado General Assembly came to a close on Wednesday, and Guzman was enjoying the freedom to be somewhere other than the Capitol on a sunny Denver morning.
“This is a fresh start,” she said of the re-introduction of the DREAM Act. “And I felt it was important to be here at the starting line.”
Like Bennet in the U.S. Senate, Guzman watched with dismay last month as the ASSET bill, Colorado’s own version of the DREAM Act, was narrowly defeated. The bill passed the state Senate but lost in the state House of Representatives.
Guzman said even if the federal government enacts the DREAM Act, and even if it passes national immigration reform, Colorado will need to address the issues confronting its immigrant students.
“We must be cognizant of what we need at the state level, and sometimes the states need to challenge the federal government,” she said. “We need at the state level to expand these opportunities. But the DREAM Act would be so huge. It would remove a huge obstacle to our kids.”