Brooklynites advocate for the NY Dream Act

February 24, 2012 Heather Chin
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The blue speckled yarn stretched outward from the middle of the room like the spokes on a wheel, each length held by one of the 35 people who formed a circle around the tightly-knit center, which held up items such as a college diploma and pictures or words listing a child’s dreams of becoming a lawyer or doctor or teacher.

But each item fell to the ground as participants were told “you need to work to help your parents put food on the table” or “no financial aid for you” or “you don’t have the right paperwork.”

The point of the exercise, explained Leticia Alanis, director of Sunset Park nonprofit La Unión, which hosted the gathering, was to showcase the importance of supporting immigrant youth in their educational pursuits, regardless of their legal status.

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“It’s not right, to lose this potential,” she said. “They are here to contribute to this country and it would be a big loss for this country [if they didn’t have the opportunity].”

That is why La Uni?n, along with the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) and other community groups are advocating for the passage of the New York State Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students who meet New York in-state tuition requirements to access state financial aid for higher education.

Approximately 146,000 youth would stand to benefit. Currently, only between five and 10 percent of these students pursue a college degree due to the financial obstacles.

Anayely Gomez, a recent graduate of Brooklyn College and member of the NYSYLC, was one. As an undocumented student, she had to work 12-hour shifts at various businesses, clean houses and do other odd jobs to pay for her education. “I am frustrated that so many students drop out of school, feeling no hope,” she said. “As a community, we need to do something for our youth. We can’t live like that anymore.”

The bill is one of several brought up by individual states after Congress rejected the federal DREAM Act in 2010. Thus far, California, New Mexico and Texas have passed state-level Dream Acts.

New York should be the next state to pass such legislation, say some residents in Sunset Park, where 66 percent of the population is undocumented, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn from Census numbers.

“This is not about giving handouts. It’s about equal access,” said Cesar Zuniga, a member of Community Board 7. “We’re not asking for a new revenue stream. We’re asking that all students, regardless of their legal status, be eligible and that they have to meet the same [merit] requirements.”

At their February board meeting, CB 7 members voted overwhelmingly to support the NYS Dream Act. They claim to be the first community board anywhere to do so, and hope to help garner support from elected officials and rally community voices.

“[I came to this information session] because the flyer said that 19 percent of Sunset Park students are undocumented. That’s a large percentage,” said Emily Miller, who teaches second grade at P.S. 24, where 90 percent of the students are of Hispanic descent. “They deserve the same opportunities as anyone.”

Jesus Perez, director of Brooklyn College’s Center for Academic Advisement and Student Success, agreed.

“It’s very important to us to let people know that you don’t need documents to attend Brooklyn College [or any other CUNY school],” said Perez, noting that current students and applicants only have access to private scholarships. “The biggest obstacle right now is information and the saddest thing is that information is free.”

Toward that end, there will be a college fair on Saturday, March 10, at the Borough of Manhattan Community College where students and parents can find out more information about the CUNY application process.

The NYSYLC – which is the first undocumented youth led, membership led, organization that empowers immigrant youth to become leaders in their communities – also welcomes residents to join them on Tuesday, March 6, on a trip to Albany to lobby on behalf of the NYS Dream Act. To join them, email [email protected] or call 212-473-2570.

On Wednesday, March 14, La Uni?n will also be taking a group upstate to speak with lawmakers. For more information, call Leticia Alanis at 917-291-9408.

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