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Debate: Is DREAM Act a Solution for Millions of Undocumented Youth or a Funnel for Military Recruitment?

StoryAugust 20, 2010
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The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — DREAM — would allow undocumented young people a chance at citizenship provided they attend college for at least two years or enlist in the military. It’s been described as a dream come true for undocumented youth wanting a chance to stay in this country without the fear of deportation. But many antiwar activists warn that the bill will simply funnel more young people into the military. We host a debate between Camilo Mejía of Iraq Veterans Against the War and pro-DREAM activist Gaby Pacheco. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a piece of legislation that many undocumented youth activists say could be a ticket to their dreams. It’s called the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Richard Lugar of Indiana. The bill would allow undocumented young people a chance at citizenship, provided they meet certain conditions related to age, residency and level of education. They would have to attend college for at least two years or enlist in the military. After graduating from college or completing their military service, the bill would allow them to obtain permanent residency with a chance to apply for US citizenship. If passed, the bill could immediately affect the lives of some 700,000 undocumented young people.

On Capitol Hill, the bill is supported by a number of key Democrats, but its supporters are divided over whether or not to link the DREAM Act to broader legislation around comprehensive immigration reform. Back when President Obama was on the campaign trail, at a debate with Hillary Clinton over two years ago, he outlined his support for passing the DREAM Act.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Something that we can do immediately that I think is very important is to pass the DREAM Act, which allows children who — who, no fault of their own, are here but have essentially grown up as Americans, allow them the opportunity for higher education. I do not want two classes of citizens in this country. I want everybody to prosper. That’s going to be a top priority.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been described as a dream come true for undocumented youth wanting a chance to stay in this country without the fear of deportation. But not everyone who supports the rights of undocumented youth is happy about the proposed legislation. Many antiwar activists warn that the bill will simply funnel more young people into the military.

This is UC San Diego professor and anti-militarism advocate Jorge Mariscal.

    JORGE MARISCAL: What one has to realize about the DREAM Act is that the military option wasn’t attached. The military option was there at the beginning. The Pentagon helped write the DREAM Act. That’s what people have to realize.

AMY GOODMAN: That clip excerpted from the report “Yo Soy El Army” by Marco Amador and Kouross Esmaeli of Big Noise Films.

Well, today we host a debate on the DREAM Act. Camilo is still with us, Camilo Mejía of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He opposes the DREAM Act. Also joining us from Miami, we are with pro-DREAM activist Gaby Pacheco. She’s twenty-five years old, student, who came to this country from Ecuador when she was seven. Earlier this year, she, along with three other students, took a four-month-long walk from Miami to Washington, DC, talking to people about their experience of growing up undocumented and urging the President to stop deportations. They called their walk the “Trail of Dreams.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gaby, let’s begin with you. Why do you support the DREAM Act?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Good morning, Amy.

Well, I think that fundamentally, when we look at the DREAM Act, it just gives opportunity for young people like myself and thousands of other young people throughout the nation to have an opportunity, a pathway, to be able to become a legal permanent resident. And, you know, this legislation has been, since 2001, up for debate. And unfortunately, we’ve been waiting for almost ten years, and nothing has happened. I agree and I support the DREAM Act, because for many, many years, many students, 65,000 every year, graduate and aren’t able to fulfill their dreams. The DREAM Act is going to give them an opportunity and a pathway to fulfill their dreams.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gabriela, can you tell us a little bit about your personal experience and how it would affect you directly?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Yes. Well, I came to the United States when I was a young child. My parents brought me here. I grew up as an American. I went to elementary school, middle school and high school. And my aspirations have always been to be able to go to college and receive an education and become a musical therapist. Unfortunately, because of my status, I wasn’t able to do so. I did have the opportunity to go to college, and I’ve graduated with three degrees. I have a bachelor’s in special education. But unfortunately, because I don’t have a legal status as a resident, I’m not able to go to school and — I’m sorry, I’m not able to work and become a teacher and contribute to the society and this community, which I love.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo, why are you opposed to the DREAM Act?

CAMILO MEJÍA: Well, Amy, I want to say that I commend all the people who are working for justice for undocumented youth and everybody else who wishes to attend higher education institutions in the United States.

My main problem with the DREAM Act is the military portion of it, which, in my opinion, is the main portion of the DREAM Act, because when you look at the 65,000 youth who graduate from high school every year in this country, you have to take into account that the vast majority of them are not going to have the English level required to gain access into a higher education institution. The military has an answer for that. The military has a language institute. The military can say, “If you don’t speak a word of English, you can join the military.”

The DREAM Act also does not allow undocumented youth, who have applied to the DREAM Act and who qualify for the DREAM Act, to get Pell Grants or to get any kind of federal-based scholarships — only loans and work study, which is not sufficient to cover tuition. The military has the Montgomery GI Bill. The military, through the National Guard and the Reserves, has tuition waivers.

The DREAM Act does not include anything along the lines of financial stability, anything along the lines of healthcare, anything along the lines of housing, whereas the military has all of these things that it’s in a position to offer to the vast majority of these 65,000 students who graduate every year, to say, “Come over here. We will teach you English. We will give you housing. We’ll give you a steady paycheck. We’ll give you all these things, if you serve in the military.”

The two-year option to serve in the military is also not a two-year option, because any military contract is eight years. No less than eight years. Whether it be a combination of two years of active service and eight years in the Reserves or four each or three and five, it doesn’t matter. It’s always eight years. And people are always subject to stop-loss.

On top of that, the DREAM Act does not grant residency. It grants conditional, temporary residency, which means that at any given point between the time that the person applies for the DREAM Act, there’s a period of six years when this person is not even eligible to apply for permanent residency and is subjected to be deported just like any other undocumented immigrant here.

In the case of people in the military, you have people going to Iraq or Afghanistan and coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder and getting into all kinds of trouble because they find a hard time to readjust to society. They get into drug-related problems, which is one of the offenses through which a person can be deported. Moral turpitude problems are very common with undocumented people, because this could be something as simple as using a fake ID or a fake Social Security number to be able to obtain work. So here you have the possibility of a person who is undocumented, graduates from high school in the United States, and does not have the ability to go to college, to be funneled into the military, serve in Iraq, come back possibly with amputations, possibly with post-traumatic stress disorder, come into the United States, not be a legal resident still, and commit a minor crime, a drug-related offense, forgery or whatever else that’s considered moral turpitude or a deportable violation, and after serving in Iraq, after having gone through all of that hell, come back here and still be deported. It gives the government the opportunity to take a pool of 65,000 kids who graduated high school in this country to send them into the military and, upon their return, still have the ability to very likely deport them. It’s a very draconian bill.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Camilo, let me bring in Gabriela Pacheco. Your response to that, that this might be, while it’s understandable your hopes and dreams about the DREAM Act, that it may be a way for the military to replenish its forces with Latino youth or with other immigrant youth?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Yes. Well, recently the Migration Policy report just came out saying that there is a large majority of undocumented youth that have applied for colleges and universities. In 2006, California alone had almost 2,000 students that were, even though undocumented, in college. The college provision in the DREAM Act says that you have the opportunity to be — to choose to either be able to go to the military or go to the college. And college is for two years only. I believe that a lot of the students that are graduating from high school, their desire is to go to college, and it’s what’s being proven right now. We have many, many undocumented youth, not only with associate’s degrees, but bachelor’s degrees and master’s and PhDs degrees, and this is just, you know, an opportunity for the students to be able to fulfill their dreams.

And as far as the military, I think that that’s an option. And I think that it’s up to us, the community and the people that are, you know, the activists, to tell these young people that are graduating every year, 65,000 of them, you know, like Camilo said, kids, to tell them there’s options, to tell them that, you know, if they stick to college for two years — and it doesn’t say that you have to go to the university or the college for the two years back to back. It says that in the six years that you are with your conditional residency, you have the opportunity to fulfill and finish those two years.

At the same time, the DREAM Act, with the conditional residency, you are going to be able to work. Students might be able to find ways to cost and pay for their college and university. As well, you are at risk, even if you are a legal permanent resident, for deportation. So the six years of provision would allow for the student to at least have some sort of status and have an opportunity to, those six years, find a pathway and, at the end, after they finish their two years of college, be able to become a legal permanent resident.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play two young people, undocumented youth. They’re for and against the DREAM Act. This is Rishi Singh, who opposes the DREAM Act. He works with DRUM, or Desis Rising Up and Moving, in New York.

    RISHI SINGH: Being undocumented, you know, you don’t really get the same amount of rights as other students. You know, I was the valedictorian of my high school, but because I was undocumented, I couldn’t get any financial aid or scholarships, and I couldn’t really go to the schools that I wanted to go to. Coming from immigrant communities, many of our families can’t afford to send us to college. And, you know, for many of our young people, there would be no other choice but to join the military. And for DRUM, you know, we come from a — we basically organize South Asian immigrant families, and we’ve seen, you know, how war affects our home countries, like in, you know, Pakistan, Afghanistan or other — you know, how the war on terror has affected us here in the US, but also in our home countries. So we don’t want, you know, young people to go and fight and continue to, like, you know, kill other people of color in unjust wars, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Jose Luis, an undocumented immigrant in New York who’s a pro-DREAM activist, responding to the concerns over the bill’s military provision.

    JOSE LUIS: Some people who oppose the DREAM Act because of the military provision, I understand. I’m also a peaceful person. I don’t believe in military. I don’t believe in wars. But at the same time, you know, there’s people who are willing to go, and they’re — they love it.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks to Jaisal Noor and Kouross Esmaeli for these clips. Camilo Mejía, your response?

CAMILO MEJÍA: I would not say that there are people who are willing to go, who love it. I would say that it is an option, but it’s not a fair option. Like I explained before, the military gives everything to undocumented youth to be able to join the military — help with improving their English, a stable livelihood, healthcare, college money — whereas the provision for the two-year college degree or two-year higher education provision does not include any type of federal financial aid other than work, work-study programs and private loans. So it’s very unfair. Because of how unfair it is, because of how different the level of access is between these two options, I would not really say that these are two fair options. I would be more than willing to support the DREAM Act if, for instance, there was a community service option, a third option for community service, which said, you know, young people who graduate from high school and meet all the requirements can work for the community for two years and then obtain citizenship or a path to citizenship. But with the way that it is, with the level of access and the amount of benefits that — and the money that the military can offer, as opposed to all the obstacles to getting a college education or a two-year college education, I think this is just another means of recruiting for the military.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gabriela Pacheco, what about the — if you can respond to Camilo, but also to the issue that by pressing for the DREAM Act for the young people who are perhaps the most sympathetic of those who are — to the rest of America, of those who are undocumented, you’re in essence allowing the political leadership to get off the hook on the question of comprehensive immigration reform and that that might be delayed for years, further down the line, if the DREAM Act is passed?

GABRIELA PACHECO: Yeah. Well, you know, the first point that I wanted to talk about is what Camilo has said. I do believe that there are people that want to join the military, and I think that that’s their personal decision, and I don’t think that we should impose our own decisions and our own beliefs on other people. And if people want to choose to go to the military and serve in the military, that that is the option that they want to pursue and partake.

As far as what we were talking about in regards to the military and the six-year provision and the language barrier and so forth, there’s a lot of community colleges out there. Right here in South Florida, we have Miami Dade College, which is — you know, it’s just a great institution that I know would help a lot of these students. They are helping right now, currently, many of the undocumented students. They have special scholarships, private scholarships that they get from funders. And there’s many, many ways. Like myself, I was able to put myself through college. I have three degrees. And I was able to find a lot of grants and scholarships to pay for those things.

And as far as the DREAM Act, I think that it’s wrong that we’ve been allowing for so many young people in the country that are turning thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, for them not to have a status. We’ve been waiting for the DREAM Act. What we need to do is move it forward. I think we need to team up with Camilo and work together so that we could have provisions such as the options of the community service. I think that those are the things that we need to move it forward. And as far as the DREAM Act —

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriela, we have to leave it there. Gabriela Pacheco and Camilo Mejía, we thank you so much for being with us.

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