Undocumented Students Pushing for a DREAM

POHTO Arizona college students rally in support of the DREAM Act through the streets of downtown Phoenix in 2008.Courtesy Daniel
Arizona college students rally in support of the DREAM Act through the streets of downtown Phoenix in 2008. The DREAM Act would help illegal immigrant students who have been here most of their lives, achieve an easier path to citizenship.

Daniel has wanted to be a lawyer his entire life. But the road to achieving his dream hasn't been easy. Growing up in Phoenix, Ariz., Daniel, 23, studied hard and made the grades. But one roadblock stood in the way of his getting a degree: his legal status.

When he was 6, he says his mother smuggled him across the U.S.-Mexico border into the United States to escape an abusive marriage.

Despite finding success in high school and earning private scholarships for his undergraduate years at Arizona State University, things changed when it came time for law school. His illegal status prevented him from being eligible for public scholarships, federal loans or even in-state tuition. Without any other funding, Daniel's dreams became too costly so he dropped out of law school after one year.

VIDEO: In wake of new Ariz. immigration law, DREAM Act supporters push for reform. Play

"I felt very sad at first and then I got angry," Daniel said with a look of disappointment, readjusting his glasses and looking around at his apartment, reflecting on what it was like when he knew he would have to drop out from school.

Daniel, who would not give his last name, is one of hundreds of thousands of young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as small children. There were 1.2 million children of Mexican descent and younger than 18 in the United States, who were counted as being here illegally, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The children have no expedited paths to citizenship, even though they have grown up here and consider the United States home.

But activists across the nation, including in Arizona, are trying to change that with a piece of federal legislation called the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. It would pave the way for a faster track to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrant students such as Daniel.

Under the act, any illegal immigrant who migrated here before the age of 16 and has lived here for five consecutive years would be able to complete a two-year degree at a college or university, or serve two years in the military in exchange for U.S. citizenship. It would also make the students eligible for grants, scholarships and reduced tuition in many states.

Students would have to graduate from high school and have no criminal record to qualify. They would be given six years to complete their two years of college or military service in order to gain citizenship.

Activists Hope SB 1070 Will Expedite Immigration Legislation

The D.R.E.A.M Act, which was originally introduced in 2002, has been in and out of Congress in the past several years. It failed to pass in 2007 but was re-introduced to Congress in March of 2009. The legislation has 113 co-sponsors in the House, and 34 in the Senate, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Two of the representatives are from Arizona.

And with the recent passing of SB 1070 in Arizona, a controversial bill that makes it a crime to be in the state illegally, activists, including those pushing for the DREAM Act are hoping the Obama Administration will move forward on immigration legislation soon. In a recent speech at Arizona State University, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the DREAM Act legislation is worth fighting for.

"There is a bi-partisan recognition that there is a terrible waste going on by precluding young people from getting a higher education who themselves are not responsible for their presence one way or another in that regard," Napolitano said.

Some state senators in Arizona also think the legislation is a step in the right direction and are pushing for overhaul.

"The fact is that these kids didn't get to make a decision whether to stay in their home country or come here," Democratic state representative Kyrsten Sinema said. "In all appearances and practices -- they're Americans -- in everything except for the paperwork."

Daniel said he is lucky in many ways that he has not been forced to leave the country, unlike Oscar Vasquez, who was deported last summer. Vasquez graduated from Arizona State University in May 2009 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was recognized as one of the top students in his class in front of Obama at the university's commencement ceremony.

But he was here illegally. And soon after graduating, he was deported back to Mexico, even though he had lived in the United States since he was 6. He left behind a wife and young daughter and immediately tried to come back into the United States but was denied. Vasquez was told he'd have to wait another 15 months before he could try again.

Immigration Debate Heats Up

"The biggest thing is that we're apart," Vasquez said, speaking by phone from northern Mexico. "I speak to my family every month or so online and every time I see my daughter she's way different. It's hard."

It's unclear if Vasquez, 23, will be able to return to the United States, so in the meantime, he works a minimum wage job in Mexico. "If I was back in the states, I'd be making five times as much as I am here," Vasquez said.

But not everyone feels that an easier path to citizenship will solve what some see as an underlying immigration issue.

Kristopher Perkins, 26, who is training to be a firefighter, has lived in Phoenix his entire life. He has witnessed the back-and--forth arguments within the immigration debate firsthand and thinks that by passing an act like this, people from other countries will have more incentive to try to cross the border illegally.

"If Mexican parents with newborns knew their kids could get an easier life in America with this law, how many more illegal immigrants will try to rush the border in hopes their kids will make it?" he asked. "The DREAM Act has good intentions but the passing of it would only hurt the U.S."

'They Deserve a Chance to Participate'

But Carmen Cornejo, a political activist with the grass-roots group known as CADENA, has been involved with the DREAM movement for several years. She said that the children should not be punished for their parents' decision to bring them across the border.

"They don't have the same opportunities as other students do," Cornejo said. "These students can also be subjected to detention, incarceration, mistreatment and deportation by immigration authorities, which is just horrendous. A number of these students in the community are valedictorians at their high schools. They are bright and they deserve a chance to participate in this country freely."

And even some staunch anti-illegal immigration lawmakers have recognized that the DREAM movement is gaining steam.

Making Accommodations

"The one thing I think most people on both sides of this issue agree on, is that some accommodation must be made for DREAM Act kids," said Republican Arizona state representative John Kavanagh, who usually supports anti-illegal immigration legislation.

He said believes that there is a distinction between those who have been here their entire lives through no action of their own, and those who purposefully break the law and enter the country illegally.

"Congress never passed the DREAM Act law and that's because, frankly, Congress wants to keep the very sympathetic DREAM Act kids lumped in with the less-sympathetic knowing illegal aliens," Kavanagh said.

While the DREAM Act remains in limbo, Daniel and other activists have made a strong attempt to write to their local legislators as part of their mission to prevent the bill from being forgotten.

He continues to rally support for the movement by speaking at local engagements, although never revealing his last name. But inspired by the principles of the DREAM Act, he has no reservations about sharing his ultimate ambition.

"I will, one day, be the governor of Arizona," Daniel said. "My mom didn't waste her efforts in order for me to not do something with my life."

ABCNews.com contributors Maxine Park and Lindsey Reiser are members of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.