BERKELEY -- Nobody but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can know for sure why the Nevada Democrat is trying to bring the long-debated DREAM Act to a vote on Capitol Hill this month, but maybe Krsna Avila had something to do with it.
The UC Davis graduate from Oakland has spent years fighting to pass the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants -- including Avila -- brought to the country illegally before they were 16.
Avila and other California student activists have lobbied politicians and university leaders and outed themselves as illegal immigrants to raise awareness. Some risked arrest and deportation to stage sit-ins at the congressional offices of Reid and other lawmakers this summer. At UC Berkeley, dozens met with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau last month, gaining the support of a friend in a high place.
"We need a breakthrough in politics for undocumented students," Birgeneau said. "We cannot afford to waste this level of talent when we're facing these kinds of challenges in California."
Reid has proposed adding the bill as an amendment to an annual defense authorization bill; a vote is expected Tuesday whether to add the amendment. Reid may also try to attach another controversial amendment -- the repeal of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy on gay armed forces members -- to the same defense bill. If added to the defense bill, the amendments would be voted on later this month.
The 22-year-old grew up in East Oakland after his parents brought him to the United States as a 4-month-old from Mexico.
"I didn't really have a say in it. I was obviously too young to have a choice," Avila said. "I have no idea what Mexico is like. Whenever somebody asks me, I don't say I'm from Mexico. I say I'm American. I don't know the place. I don't have any memories of it."
Avila found out he was here illegally when he began thinking about college as a teenager at Skyline High School in Oakland.
His parents obtained permanent legal residency in 2003, making a gamble on a hard-to-get route to citizenship that could have put them in deportation proceedings if their application failed. They immediately petitioned to add their son, who was 16 at the time.
But there was such a long backlog of immigration requests from Mexico that the application process was continuously delayed. Avila turned 21, aging out of his eligibility for legal status as a minor child of legal immigrants. He was instead placed in another category for adult children of legal immigrants, which has an even higher backlog. It will be at least a decade, Avila has been told, before he can expect an answer to his parent's request to get him a green card.
In the meantime, he cannot work legally. He graduated from UC Davis this year with degrees in psychology and sociology. He has been fighting for the DREAM Act -- raising awareness on campus, contacting educators and politicians -- for about as long as he has known about it.
"In 2007, I got my hopes up. It was really heartbreaking when I found out it didn't pass," Avila said.
His hope is more measured this year. Many DREAM Act student activists in the Bay Area say they are wary of the political maneuverings happening a little more than 40 days before the midterm elections, but they are doing whatever they can to get on-the-fence lawmakers on their side.
If the DREAM Act is passed, it has been estimated that more than 500,000 California children and adults under 35 would be eligible for it -- from twenty-somethings like Avila to elementary school students still not aware of what it means to be undocumented.
"A third of our student body would be instantly transformed," said Aaron Townsend, principal of Coliseum College Prep, a middle and high school in East Oakland.
Being undocumented is a financial and emotional barrier to many of his students, holding back their aspirations for "what's possible in life," Townsend said. Many still excel despite these barriers, he said, including the three highest-ranked students in the school's first graduating class who all lack legal immigration status. But once they graduate, many become paralyzed by the challenges of living in the shadows.
All beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, as it is currently proposed, must have been brought to the United States before they were 16 years old. They must graduate from high school or pass the GED to get a conditional green card that lasts for six years. Then, they must enroll in college or enlist in the military, spending at least two years pursuing a higher education or serving honorably in the armed forces before they can get permanent legal residency.
The bill, if made into law, would be unprecedented -- never before has an immigration law been specifically tied to the educational attainment or military service of young people. But opponents say it is merely a ploy, a softer form of amnesty for illegal immigrants that tugs at the heartstrings but ends up encouraging more illegal immigration.
"It's a massive amnesty bill cloaked as an educational initiative for kids," said Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates restricting immigration. "In reality, it's a sweeping legislation for a very large proportion of the illegal population."
Some have argued the lack of a DREAM Act will make it difficult for the country to meet President Barack Obama's goal to increase the number of college graduates dramatically in the next decade. Without federal student aid, students have trouble staying in school, counselors said.
"They struggle," said Bill Fracisco, a counselor at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg. The DREAM Act "would be a blessing for the students."
In California, undocumented students can take advantage of a law allowing them to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they meet certain criteria. But many of those students are afraid to disclose their illegal status, Fracisco said, even if it would significantly reduce the cost of school.
"I know there's a big need," he said. "They're afraid that if they slip up, then boom, they'll get deported."
Even those who overcome the hurdle of getting to college have troubles later.
Blanca Hernandez moved back in with her family in Richmond after graduating from UC Davis.
"Because of my status, it's been completely impossible for me to get a job, to exercise my degree," Hernandez said. "If I worked right now, it would have to be under the table. I don't have a Social Security number."
Working under the table is what she used to do, paying for her higher education by working at an East Bay gas station when she wasn't in class.
Hernandez studied Chicano studies and social policy at UC Davis. She wanted to study international relations, but changed her major because she could not leave the country to study abroad -- if she did, she'd never be let back in. She wants to go to law school, but is not sure how she'll pay for it.
The 27-year-old moved to California from Mexico when she was 6 and grew up in Richmond. Her parents, like Avila's, have become legal residents, but the backlog to join them is long.
"I don't have 15 years to wait," Hernandez said. "I can't put my life on hold for 15 years."
Avila also cannot wait, but still considers himself luckier than many of his peers who are also here illegally and lack financial support from their families.
"My parents are citizens, so they are able to get a job and pay for my education," Avila said. "That's the reason I was able to go through college. If it wasn't for that, it would have been even harder."
Avila has many undocumented friends in the East Bay who dropped out of school because of financial hardships. He knows others who would join the military if they could.
"A lot of my friends from high school that I knew, that didn't make it to college, they were trying to enlist in the military and weren't able to, just because of (their status)," Avila said. "That's their personal choice. If someone wants to go to the military, I don't see why they should deny them."
Gabriela Monico's father brought her to the United States from El Salvador when she was 15, just five years ago, hoping his daughter would find better opportunities here.
Monico could barely speak English in her first year at Azusa High School in Southern California. But by senior year, after convincing school administrators to let her into tougher classes, she was storming through AP exams in English, history, calculus and the sciences and earned acceptance to UC Berkeley.
Monico dropped out in her second year at Berkeley because she could not afford the tuition anymore, but some professors let her continue to attend classes. This year, a private scholarship has helped Monico re-enroll at the university, but her future remains uncertain. She also wants to go to law school someday.
"If (the DREAM Act) doesn't pass, I will graduate from Berkeley but I won't have the opportunity to have a decent job," Monico said. "I'll be working menial jobs, but I have the potential to do so much more. ... It's something that really terrifies me."
The DREAM Act has traditionally had bipartisan support but was often held back by lawmakers and advocates who favored a more comprehensive immigration overhaul. It continues to have the backing of some high-profile Republicans. Colin Powell endorsed the DREAM Act in a television interview Sunday. California GOP gubernatorial candidate Carly Fiorina announced her support at a debate at St. Mary's College in Moraga this month.
"I do not believe we can punish children who are here, through no fault of their own, trying to live the American dream," Fiorina said.
But the measure, at least the way it has been proposed by Reid, has also lost the support of key conservative backers. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of the lawmakers who introduced the DREAM Act nine years ago, has said he will not vote in its favor this fall. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who co-sponsored the DREAM Act three times since 2003, has argued that inserting it into the defense bill is inappropriate.
Dane, the spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, believes that Reid, who faces a tough re-election fight, has made a cynical move that is unlikely to succeed.
"It's going to give him bragging rights back to his much-needed Hispanic voting base back in Nevada," Dane said. If the bill fails, its defeat will be used to show Latino voters that Republicans are anti-immigrant, Dane said. Dane doubts, however, that many moderate Democrats are going to take the risk of backing Reid on such a hot-button topic.
"You've got to wonder if they're going to fall off a cliff just to help him win an election in Nevada," Dane said.
DREAM Act proponents are willing to believe the last-ditch move could work. On Sunday and Monday, undocumented Bay Area students and their supporters gathered at phone-banking offices in San Francisco and Berkeley to draft letters to lawmakers and call their offices. Many of the activists feel that this month's vote will be their last chance in a long time to get the DREAM Act passed.
"I really think the actions in D.C. in July contributed to us being able to get DREAM Act as a down payment toward comprehensive immigrant reform, a first step," said Michelle Romero, organizer of the Bay Area DREAM Act Coalition. "We are hopeful. Every year presents its own challenges, given the political climate of the time."
Matt O'Brien covers immigration. Reach him at 925-977-8463. Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246.
If enacted, the DREAM Act would give legal status to undocumented youth and young adults if they meet the following conditions:
DREAM ACT ELIGIBILITY BY STATE
More than 2.1 million undocumented immigrant children and young adults would be eligible for the federal DREAM Act, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute.
Top 5 states of residence of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries:
Source: Estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, July 2010
The California DREAM Act
Not to be confused with the federal DREAM Act, which would change immigration law, this state proposal would affect college student finances. Proposed by state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, the bill would make it easier for undocumented students to get financial aid without completing federal paperwork. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last vetoed the bill in 2008, citing "the precarious fiscal condition the state faces at this time," and the proposal also was vetoed in 2005 and 2007.
California Immigrant Higher Education Act (AB 540)
Adopted in 2001, AB 540 allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at California colleges and universities if they do the following: