20 years later, undocumented Arizona immigrants still hopeful of DREAM Act

Jun 30, 2021, 8:12 AM | Updated: 11:07 am
(AP Photo, File/Jose Luis Magana)...
(AP Photo, File/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo, File/Jose Luis Magana)

PHOENIX – A generation of undocumented immigrants in Arizona and across the country have, for two decades, longed for the DREAM Act to provide them a path to citizenship.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has led the efforts to get the bill passed since 2001. But it has failed to get enough votes to make it to the president’s desk.

“For 20 years on the floor of the United States Senate, I have introduced this bill and told the stories of the ‘Dreamers,’” Durbin said on the Senate floor in February as he reintroduced the DREAM Act.

“This is the year,” he added. “This is the time when we can come together and make a difference in the future of America.”

The DREAM Act would let young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children earn lawful permanent residence and eventually citizenship if they meet certain requirements, including passing a background check and reaching education requirements.

The absence of the DREAM Act has left “Dreamers” like Jose Patiño without a path to legalize their immigration status. He’s the youngest of four and the first in his family to go to college.

Patiño graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a mechanical engineering degree. But he couldn’t use his degree to work because of his undocumented status.

“The most difficult part was that I felt like I let my family down,” he said. “They made so many sacrifices for me to have this opportunity.”

But that changed in 2012.

That’s the year President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allows young undocumented immigrants like Patiño a chance to stay and legally work in the U.S.

The latest federal data shows more than 34,400 DACA recipients live in Arizona.

For Michael Nazario, the DACA program made it possible for him to enlist in the Army, something he wasn’t able to do right after high school because of his undocumented status. He’s stationed in South Korea.

“It was always about doing the right thing,” he said about enlisting. “I always wanted to provide something back to my country.”

Yadira Garcia said the DACA program allowed her to pursue a career in teaching. She’s now a math teacher at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where she once attended.

“Whenever I introduce myself at the beginning of the year, I always make sure to let them know that I am a DACA recipient and a ‘Dreamer,’” she said.

She explained that she wants to relate to her students, some of whom are now counting on the DREAM Act for their future.

Angel Palazuelos is one of them. He’s currently studying mechanical engineering as a Barrett Honors College student at ASU after graduating high school with a 4.7 grade-point average.

“One of the terms to be eligible for DACA is having resided in the U.S. before June 15, 2007,” he said. “I like to call that the magic number – one, because it just feels arbitrary to me, and two, because it gatekeeps ‘Dreamers’ from following their dreams.”

Palazuelos’ mother brought him and his older brother to the U.S. three days after that deadline, making them ineligible for DACA.

“Being undocumented is truly heartaching. It’s stressful. It’s painful,” he said.

Palazuelos and many others hope Congress will pass the DREAM Act once and for all this year. The House already approved a version of it; the Senate still has to vote on it.

A campaign launched this week to raise awareness about the DREAM Act and how the inability by Congress to pass it has impacted many Arizonans. It’s called, “We Are All Arizona.”

“This is the moment. It’s been 20 years of inaction,” said Reyna Montoya, a DACA recipient and founder of the nonprofit group Aliento, which launched the campaign.

“Right now we have a clear opportunity … to get it through the finish line.”

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20 years later, undocumented Arizona immigrants still hopeful of DREAM Act