They are undocumented residents of Wisconsin, many of whom have lived here since they were small children. They call the state home. They speak English as their mother tongue. Many of them have excelled in high school.
They now wish to continue their education, to contribute to their communities. But federal law considers them illegal immigrants and makes them ineligible for all forms of financial aid, including loans. State law stipulates that they must pay out-of-state tuition at Wisconsin public universities.
This week, the DREAM-in-Motion Tour will appear at area high schools and colleges. The tour is named after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, bipartisan legislation that had been introduced in Congress and that awaits reintroduction by its sponsors, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
The DREAM Act would eliminate a provision of federal immigration law that discourages states from providing in-state tuition to immigrant students and would allow undocumented high school graduates to apply for legal status. Both steps move the students closer to being eligible for financial aid.
Made up of students from southeastern Wisconsin high schools and colleges, the tour features information about the issue of undocumented immigrant students’ access to higher education, along with a short skit, “Illegal Minds,” written by group member Miguel Lopez.
In “Illegal Minds,” the main character, Pancho, “is millions of immigrants.” As a baby, he and his parents elude pursuit by a thirsty Death and clamoring Minutemen at the U.S.-Mexico border and arrive in Milwaukee.
His father, Jose, works in a restaurant 12 hours a day, six days a week, while his mother, Maria, works as a housekeeper. Their hard work pays off; Pancho graduates from high school on the honor roll.
This is the immigrant dream. It is something we honor and respect in this country, particularly in Milwaukee, with our proud ethnic festivals and tradition of immigrant community building.
But for Pancho and his family, things go terribly awry. He is denied financial aid and in-state tuition at a university that he is more than ready to attend and is denied entry and college aid by the Marines, who nonetheless demand that he register for Select Service in an emergency draft to defend “his country.”
Frustrated in his attempts to escape poverty, he winds up joining a gang and ultimately goes to jail for “being a menace to society.” At his trial, he tells the judge: “I always tried to become the best I could be, but thanks to your laws, you took away all my dreams. Your laws became the nightmares in my dreams. . . I’m only one of millions. I ask you to help us advance because we are trying. We only ask for equality of opportunity to overcome poverty.”
Rachel Ida Buff is associate professor of history and coordinator of ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of Voces de la Frontera, a southeastern Wisconsin immigrant rights group.