Luis Serrano came to Denver with his family from Juarez, Mexico in July 2001 when he was just 10 years old. He came with a six-month visitor visa. But when that visa expired, his parents decided to stay.
“We became permanent tourists,” explained Serrano.
Ever since, he has been looking over his shoulder, afraid that a traffic stop for a broken windshield or a cracked taillight will lead to deportation.
“It’s a risk; it’s a gamble,” says the 21-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver psychology student. “There’s a fear inside of me that I’m going to get stopped and taken into custody.”
But on June 15, an announcement from President Barack Obama finally put a smile on Serrano’s face. The president announced that beginning Aug. 15, undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children would be allowed to apply for “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” potentially allowing nearly 2 million undocumented youth to remain and work without fear of deportation for at least two years.
“We were just waiting and waiting, and he was just taking his time coming out,” Serrano recalled back to June 15 when he and his friends gathered at a house to watch the president’s announcement. “But he came out and started saying all the good things about the DREAMers, and as he was speaking, I was getting a smile on my face… It’s the right step in the right direction.”
So-called DREAMers are undocumented immigrants who came as children and dream of the day when they can attend college, or work in the United States without fear of deportation. Their dream is really that of the American Dream, which is that freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success.
Legislation offered little hope
Federal legislation known as the DREAM Act would offer temporary legal status to young undocumented immigrants who have graduated high school and intend on attending college or joining the military. But that legislation has repeatedly stalled in Congress, offering little hope until the president’s executive order.
In Colorado, similar attempts at offering undocumented students in-state tuition rates have failed at the legislature, blocked by Republican opposition. Just this year, another attempt at so-called Colorado ASSET failed.
Metropolitan State University of Denver decided not to wait on the legislature to take action, and beginning Aug. 20, the university implemented a policy that allows undocumented students in Colorado to take advantage of a new reduced tuition rate. An estimated 100 students are taking advantage of the new policy.
Former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo has threatened to file a lawsuit challenging the policy. He told The Colorado Statesman that he planned on filing the suit by Sept. 7. He believes he has been bolstered by a legal opinion from Republican Attorney General John Suthers, who opined that Metro State’s policy is illegal.
“Administrators and trustees at different state colleges can have honest disagreements about tuition policies, but they must obey the law,” said Tancredo. “Metro State must wait for the General Assembly to change the law, and if the law is not changed, they can’t make new laws by themselves.”
But Denver immigration attorney Hans Meyer says Obama’s executive order could open the door for colleges and universities not only in Colorado, but also across the country to offer reduced tuition rates to undocumented students. He said the issue is still an unknown, but that legal experts are anxiously awaiting clarification.
“The interesting thing is that it calls the question of a lot of these issues… because the federal government is recognizing that people should have the ability to be employed, they’re recognizing that their pursuits of higher education maybe calls the question on the state level of whether it’s time to recognize that here as well,” said Meyer.
Complicated process; political pressure
Meyer is assisting several young undocumented immigrants navigate the complex maze of forms and supporting documents that are needed to apply for the temporary legal status. It is believed that as many as 400 from Denver have begun the process. Each application also includes a $465 fee.
Those who are eligible are people 30 and younger who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military. Applicants must prove that they have been living in the United States continuously for at least five years.
Noting the complicated process involved in applying for the temporary legal status, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, joined Meyer and several applicants at his Denver law office on Aug. 30 to offer her assistance to those looking to take advantage of Obama’s order.
DeGette believes that the majority of Americans agree that there should be a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
“Recent polling has shown that the vast majority of Americans support these dreamers; they support the idea of kids being able to apply for work permits, and to go to college to be able to fulfill the American dream,” said DeGette.
The outcome of the presidential election could play a role in the debate, as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said that the issue needs more action than just an executive order. If Romney wins the election, he could eliminate Obama’s executive order.
But DeGette says that regardless of the presidential election, she plans to work with both sides of the aisle on finding a comprehensive solution.
“I really think we need comprehensive reform, and I think it’s the kind of thing we should be able to sit down, just everybody take a deep breath, take the rhetoric down a notch, and talk about how to do it on a bipartisan basis,” she said.