Tuesday, May 24, 2011

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a "un-Revolution"; Part 4, ATOM “Dream Act” Work

Cindy Agustin is Access To Opportunity Movement's (ATOM) Director for Immigration Reform Initiatives. She is from a predominantly immigrant community in the southwest side of Chicago and is a fourth year at the University of Chicago studying Comparative Human Development and minoring in Human Rights.

On campus, Cindy has worked with students and student groups to bring attention to the issue of undocumented students in higher education and advocating for the rights of documented and undocumented immigrants.

Through a new organization, the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights, she and has been working with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). IYJL is a youth-led group representing undocumented youth in the demand for immigrant rights through education, resource-gathering, and youth mobilization.

Cindy also works with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) organizing students in local universities to advocate for the rights of undocumented students on their campus and pressuring their school president to publicly advocate for the Dream Act.

Ms. Agustin hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in an education related field and work to improve the conditions in the public school system in Chicago, as well as encourage more minorities to continue onto higher education. She provides insight for the ATOM Dream Act platform.

What led to incorporate the Dream Act into the ATOM platform?

In the U.S., there are approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year who have limited opportunities to continue with their education and to pursue their dreams because of their undocumented status.

These young people have no pathway towards citizenship except through federal legislation like the Dream Act. This fair and simple policy, if enacted, will give these young people the opportunity to earn their citizenship through education or military service. It will be a chance for them to pursue the American dream and achieve their goals.

It is important to remember that many of these students were brought to America at a very young age, with no voice in their family’s decision to move here. We believe that access to opportunity applies to everyone, which means that undocumented youth must be made part of the conversation when discussing policy, especially in the area of education.

What does ATOM see as the main positives for Americans in passing the Dream Act?

In November of 2010, the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA released a report showing the economic benefits of the Dream Act. According to their data, the 2.1 million undocumented immigrants who qualify to receive legal status under the Dream Act would generate about $3.6 trillion over a 40-year period.

Not only would these young people be able to contribute to the American economy, but they would be part of a highly educated and skilled population which would now have the resources and the agency to help America to be more competitive in the global economy.

BKH: What does ATOM see as the main negatives for Americans in passing the Dream Act?
Unfortunately, the Dream Act will only apply to a small percentage of undocumented immigrants in the United States and not solve the larger problems with our immigration system. Yet, immigrant youth and advocates for the Dream Act do not consider this bill to be the final goal.

In order to solve the issue of unauthorized immigration, larger pieces of legislation need to be considered and larger conversations need to be had that include all undocumented immigrants, the injustices in our immigration laws, and potential solutions that would create a pathway towards citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.

BKH: What are ATOM’s thoughts on President Obama not pushing for passage of the Dream Act in actuality when the Democrats had a majority in the House and the Senate in 2009 and 2010?
CA: President Obama had the opportunity to push for the Dream Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform during his first term and make it a reality. For whatever reason, he chose not to. Immigrant youth and allies are now asking him to file an executive order to at least stop the deportations of Dream Act eligible youth, as a temporary compromise.

We believe that President Obama should offer some relief to undocumented youth during his first term as president, and it’s not as if he is against the idea. During his campaign for office, President Obama made a promise to America that he would pass the Dream Act within his first 100 days in office. We still have faith that he will find the strength to make the right choice, but unfortunately, we have yet to see this happen.

Why does it seem the majority of Americans are opposed to the Dream Act?

Actually, polls show that more Americans are in support of the Dream Act than not. Numbers range from a CNN poll showing that 54% of the American public was behind the Act, to a to a more informal CBS News reader poll reflecting 68% of respondents support it.

First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Their poll conducted in June 2010, showed total public support at 70% with a break out of Republican at 60% and Democrats at 80%.
The majority of polls, other than a Pulse Opinion Report commissioned by the group Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), show at least a slim margin in favor of passing the legislation.

That being said, most Americans are still not properly informed about the Dream Act and all of the social and economic benefits that it would stand to the United States. Many major news sources give the public biased information portraying all undocumented immigrants as “criminals” and dangerous to American society.

Sadly, many Americans believe the propaganda that they see on the news channels. For this reason, personal stories from undocumented youth are crucial in earning even more support for this bill from the general public.

BKH What is being done currently at the local and national level to overcome this opposition?
CA: Over the last year, undocumented youth all over the nation have been sharing their stories with their friends, community, media and politicians as a political tool to change the image of an undocumented person.

Undocumented youth have proclaimed their undocumented status and have publicly come out of the shadows, a tactic borrowed from the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) movement. Over the last year, undocumented students have shared their stories with the public and changed the image of an undocumented youth.

At the local level, many states have also attempted to create their own version of the federal Dream Act. Some of these states are making education more accessible to undocumented students by pushing for in-state tuition, while other states, like Illinois which has already won in-state tuition for undocumented students, are pushing to create private sources of funding for immigrant students to be able to continue with their education. Local efforts allow the momentum to continue in support of the federal Dream Act and undocumented youth.

BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM immigration advocacy and programs.
CA: ATOM has collaborated with the Immigrant Youth Justice League and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in advocating for the Dream Act, undocumented youth, and immigrant rights. ATOM also works with campus groups whose aim is to bring awareness to the issue of undocumented students.

Overall, ATOM is committed to working with local and national immigrant rights organizations in advocating for the rights and equal treatment of all immigrants.

BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its Dream Act platform focus?
The struggle for passage of the Dream Act is different from any of ATOM’s other platforms, because it is championed by such a cohesive network of other immigrant rights organizations. This is a national movement.

As a collective, our organizations have identified specific targets that range from politicians to university officials and community leaders.

For example, ATOM has been working with students at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to build actionable support amongst their students and school presidents. We encourage them to meet with legislators from their districts and to support both the Illinois Dream Act and the national Dream Act.

BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its Dream Act platform focus?
It’s pretty simple. If we target one legislator who previously has not been for the Dream Act, we can launch initiatives from several different angles to help better inform their decision when it comes down to a vote. At the end of the day, a vote will be cast, and we will either have the numbers we need, or we won’t.

There is also something to be said though about the number of new supporters we bring into the movement, and how many misperceptions we are able to correct as they pertain to undocumented people. Those are a little more nebulous, and definitely harder to track, but nonetheless are very important wins towards our cause.

BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its Dream Act mission?
Check out our website and click on “Join the Movement!” We’re always interested in seeing more people get involved!

BKH: Thank you Cindy. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.

See also:
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 2, ATOM Education Mission
Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition

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