25 October 2010

Young Women Lead the Way in Immigration Reform

If you want an up-close look at what makes the Dream Act such an important piece of legislation, take the time to read Maggie Jones' piece "Coming Out Illegal," which ran in this weekend's New York Times Magazine.

Jones profiles a young, undocumented woman named Leslie: a senior at UCLA, who has taken on a prominent role advocating for passage of the Dream Act between studying for her classes and working multiple part-time jobs alongside her mother to help pay for her education. The act -- which has bipartisan support in Congress but failed to pass in September -- would allow students like Leslie, who came to this country illegally, to earn legal status by completing two years of college or military service after being in the US for at least five years and graduation from high school (or earning a G.E.D.)

The reality of Leslie's life -- and her future prospects without the Dream Act -- are heartbreaking: the constant fear that she, her friends and family will be deported; the knowledge that even with the sacrifices she's made to get herself a college education, she'll likely have to take a low-paying job because she still has no path to obtaining legal status. None of that, however, has stopped her, and other young women like her, from standing up, and risking their lives in the US, to push for passage of legislation that could change so much for so many.

And the fact that so many of the individuals on the front lines of this particular fight are indeed women doesn't go unnoticed by Jones. She argues that much of the movement for passage of the Dream Act has been "powered by women," noting that,
At recent sit-ins, two-thirds of those arrested were women, including founders and leaders of their local Dream organizations. Women have also stuck with the movement long after many men have dropped out or burned out. Lizbeth Mateo, co-founder of Dream Team Los Angeles, said she and other leaders tried to get more undocumented men to participate in a sit-in in McCain’s Arizona office this year. “We wanted to balance it out,” she said. But with one exception, the men said they were not ready.
We're not surprised that women may be leading the charge on these efforts. As Caroline Hotaling, program officer for National Policy & Strategic Opportunities put it, "Just as we've seen in other disastrous situations, like Hurricane Katrina, women are often the 'last men standing' in these battles to ensure justice. They rise to leadership in the face of these difficult situations because their options for avoiding them are much more limited. They can't for example, just move to a new city when there's an immigration crackdown -- they have children and elderly family members depending on them. So they stay, and they fight."

With the news that Georgia has now joined South Carolina and Alabama in barring undocumented students from attending public universities, Leslie's story is more important than ever. She is just one among more than 800,000 undocumented young people whose lives could be positively impacted the passage of this bill. Here's hoping the powers that be see to it that the "American dream" remains open to us all.

Ms. Foundation grantees the National Latina Reproductive Health Initiative and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights have both spoken out boldly on the need to pass the Dream Act. Visit their websites to learn more about their important work.

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