When Camilo Godoy was 10 years old, he moved from Bogotá, Colombia to a tightly-knit Hispanic enclave in Bergen County, New Jersey. As his mother had just married an American citizen, Godoy became a legal resident.
But many in his community, including neighbors, classmates and close friends, were undocumented and not as lucky. The DREAM Act, he says, gave them hope.
The federal bill would have provided permanent residency in the United States for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, graduated from U.S. high schools, and lived in the U.S. for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment, affording them a chance to hold jobs and pursue college-level degrees. But on December 8, 2010, the DREAM Act fell five ballots short of the 60-vote threshold in the United States Senate. As supporters cried outside of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C, Godoy watched the news unfold from his computer, he recalls.
“Their future was so close to change,” Godoy said. “You could really see how a piece of legislation could impact the lives of these people.”
Godoy, 23, is a fourth-year BA/BFA student studying photography at Parsons and education at Eugene Lang College. Last year, he co-founded the Global Migration Group, a collection of New School students and immigration advocates. Since then, the organization has sponsored a series of film screenings and forum discussions aimed at fostering support from those around New York City.
The New York State Board of Regents estimates that 345,000 undocumented immigrants currently attend public school in New York state. In 2012, nearly 10,000 of these students will graduate high school.
The immigration debate has stalled in Washington. But in Albany last March, New York State Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Guillermo Linares introduced a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would give immigrant students grants, loans and scholarships, regardless of citizenship status.
“This bill is for a population that has grown up here and has been educated here,” said Alexandra Delano, a global studies professor at Lang and Global Migration Group advisor. “Without it, we lose huge potential for the future. With it, we move one step closer and finally address the challenge of how to pay for college.”
The legislation has gained political backing around the state. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, as well as United States Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand have all endorsed the bill.
“Immigration is at the very center of our city, state and nation,” Perkins told the Free Press, noting that similar legislation passed in Illinois, Connecticut and California in 2011. “Even though the national bill has yet to pass,” he added, “our vision is still the same, and the dream is still the same.”
The proposed act has also elicited strong support from educational leaders in the city. Last month, New School President David Van Zandt added his name to the growing list of backers, sending a public letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo in support of the bill.
“A legacy of embracing diverse perspectives… continues to inform our philosophy,” Van Zandt wrote in the January 18 letter. “Immigrants and their children enrich our culture, sustain our economy, and enhance our understanding of the world around us.”
According to the New York State Youth Leadership Council, The New School is currently one of five universities in the state backing the bill. Other such institutions include Manhattanville College, New York University, CUNY and SUNY. The New York State Board of Regents has also announced its support.
“This university’s central educational philosophy is about access,” said Peter Taback, The New School’s vice president for communications and external affairs. “By making it easier for new Americans to pursue a quality education, the New York State DREAM legislation speaks to The New School’s core values.”
Despite the bill’s growing support from members of New York’s academic communities, conservatives argue that it rewards an estimated 550,000 people residing in the state without documentation. They insist that with nearly eight percent unemployment in New York, these immigrants should not be positioned to take jobs from legal citizens.
“Bills like these cut the rule-breakers to the front of the line at the taxpayer’s expense,” said Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department counsel now working as a senior legal fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “Passing this in New York will only attract more of these criminals to the state.”
Critics on the left, meanwhile, argue that the bill is too selective, assisting only a narrow proportion of undocumented immigrants. In order to qualify for financial aid under the act, a student would have had to migrate to the United States before age 16, be under age 35, and have lived in New York for two years prior to the day the bill takes effect. Applicants would be legally obligated to either finish two years of a four-year degree, complete 910 hours of community service, or serve at least two years in the New York National Guard. The bill would not provide a means for direct citizenship.
Alex Rojas, a partner at immigration law firm Barst, Mukamal, and Kleiner, said that the upcoming elections will likely prove unfavorable toward those who support the bill. With Republicans determined to retain their majority in the State Senate, he added, bipartisan support will remain unlikely.
“It is a shame when a kid with intelligence, ability and drive is unable to work or further an education because of an illegal status,” said Rojas. “Washington has become so partisan, nothing can get done.”
But undocumented immigrants like Jose Luis Zacatelco believe that the bill has already begun to serve a purpose by sparking a larger conversation about citizenship.
Zacatelco, 31, spent the first 10 years living in the Mexican city of Puebla. He recalls a conversation he had with his grandfather just days before crossing the border with his mother and four siblings.
“He knew he was never going to see me again,” Zacatelco said. “But he told me, ‘Education will let you become the person you want to be.’ My family sacrificed everything to come here. But we did it for a reason.”
After learning English and graduating high school, Zacatelco found a job as a heating and cooling engineer. He has since decided to continue his education, and is pursuing an associate’s degree in mental health at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.
In 2007, inspired by his experiences from both sides of the American border, he founded the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an immigration rights group. The council consists of about 50 active volunteers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. By calling legislators and university personnel from around the state, Zacatelco hopes that the council will help support for the New York DREAM Act, and bills like it, to grow nationwide.
“Maybe right now the federal act is not doable,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we will just wait around. Students are taking charge of their duties and dreams as Americans.”
The Youth Leadership Council will host a town hall meeting in March to organize mass support for the bill as it moves closer to votes in the State Assembly and State Senate, respectively. Like many members of the Global Migration Group, Godoy plans to attend.
“It is empowering to see how unafraid these people are to fight for justice,” said Godoy. “We need to be their allies.”
With reporting by Kareem Samuels & Andrea Vocos