When Hulda Mazariegos was named valedictorian of Wyandanch
High School in 2003, she was offered a full four-year college scholarship.
There was one problem: Mazariegos was an illegal immigrant who had been ordered
deported at age 7 but never left.
She, her mother and seven other family members had been apprehended after
they crossed the border into California back in 1992, fleeing a civil war then
raging in Guatemala. After the college learned of her illegal status, it
withdrew the scholarship.
Mazariegos spent the summer working at a local deli. She was lucky,
however, because her father had won legal status several years earlier, and a
sympathetic government attorney agreed to help reopen her deportation case.
After finally getting her green card, she qualified for the scholarship and is
now a straight-A student at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, well on her way
to realizing her goal of becoming a lawyer.
It's important to keep young people like Mazariegos in mind as the U.S.
Senate debates a comprehensive bill that would legalize millions of
undocumented immigrants. She is part of the small picture that tends to be
overshadowed in the larger immigration fight.
As an immigration attorney, I have met thousands of young Hispanics living
parents at an early age. They have become completely Americanized in their
tastes, speak English with no foreign accent, and have little or no memory of
their home country.
They are among the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate
every year from U.S. high schools. Although federal law provides for free
public school education regardless of a student's immigration status,
undocumented immigrants often drop out because a degree without legal status
leads nowhere. Or they graduate and, like Mazariegos, find opportunities
blocked. And at a time when military recruiters are struggling to meet their
quotas, young undocumented immigrants are also ineligible to serve in the armed
The young people's loss is our loss. Long Island, like many areas of the
country, needs more Spanish-speaking teachers, police officers, social workers,
lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Reasonable people can disagree on
whether it is a good idea to provide a path to citizenship for the majority of
the 12 million illegal immigrants. But a sense of decency - not to mention
national and local self-interest - should lead us to universal support for
legislation that would enable undocumented immigrants who entered the United
States as children the opportunity to go to college or serve in the armed
There is, in fact, such a bipartisan measure, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch
Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), and it is part of the
comprehensive immigration bill being debated on Capitol Hill. A companion bill
has been introduced in the House.
Both measures would grant conditional legal status to qualified students
upon high school graduation, and extend permanent legal status and eventually
citizenship to those who go on to college or the military.
The legislation also would eliminate a federal provision that discourages
states from providing in-state tuition to undocumented students. To be
eligible, students must have entered the United States before age 16 and have
lived here for at least five years before the law takes effect.
The independent Migration Policy Institute estimates that the DREAM Act
would make 279,000 young people aged 18-24 immediately eligible for college
enrollment or military service. Another 715,000 youths from ages 5 to 17 would
qualify in the future for conditional and then permanent legal status.
Although this sounds like the kind of legislation that both Republicans and
Democrats of goodwill could rally around, versions of this bill have been
kicking around in Congress since 2003. Even though President George W. Bush has
supported some form of legalization, conservative House Republicans have
opposed the idea in principle as a "disguised amnesty." They would punish
children who were brought here illegally by their parents.
Now, with a Democratic majority in both houses, there appears to be a real
chance that the DREAM Act will become law.
Reports out of Washington last week said that both parties have agreed on
this section of the comprehensive legislation. If an overall measure is finally
passed, this will be the year in which a generation of young immigrants will
gain the opportunity to realize their dreams, and stories like Mazariegos's
will no longer be the exception.