Young people share stories of faith, hope

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Yazmin would be a dream student for many colleges. She graduated from high school with a 4.21 grade-point average and a transcript loaded with honors courses. Fully bilingual, she is committed to education and hopes to become a teacher.

But without passage of the federal DREAM Act, Yazmin’s dreams likely will remain out of reach. Her parents brought her to Chicago when she was 3 years old, and she does not have legal immigration status.

Because she is an undocumented immigrant, she is ineligible for any government-sponsored financial aid for college, including student loans or work-study grants, and shut out of competition for many private scholarships as well. If she does get her degree, she will not be allowed to work legally in the United States.

“I’ve been asking people to pray for us,” said Yazmin, who spoke at St. Mary of the Woods Parish on Chicago’s far Northwest Side and at St. Mary Parish in Evanston. “My mom’s been trying to convince me to pray the rosary every day. I believe that if you have faith, you’re going to make it.”

Yazmin, a parishioner at St. John Bosco Parish, was one of dozens of young people who shared their stories at parishes across the Archdiocese of Chicago at Masses on Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 8-9, in an effort to generate support for the federal DREAM Act. They have stories of hope and stories of faith.

The DREAM Act, which is carrying the hopes of Yazmin and her peers, has been championed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It would offer young people who were brought into this country as young children and raised here the opportunity to get financial aid and start on a legal path to citizenship if they finish college or a stint in the U.S. military. They would have had to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years before the law is enacted.

The young speakers are one component of a campaign to gain support for the DREAM Act being mounted for the Office of Immigration Education and Immigrant Affairs. In addition, nearly 50 parishes included related prayers at Mass or announcements in their bulletins, and dozens of parishes committed to sending electronic postcards to legislators from the USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants website.

In conjunction with that campaign, Cardinal George issued a statement Sept. 25 saying, in part: “The Catholic Bishops of the United States, along with leaders of other faith traditions, are encouraging the passage of federal legislation called the DREAM Act which would give these students an opportunity to realize their dream of becoming full citizens and contributors to the social and economic fabric of this country.” (See statement at www.archchicago. org/Immigration.) Versions of the bill have been around for more than 10 years, without steady growth in legislative support.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, who visited the archdiocesan immigrant affairs office on Oct. 7, said the best chance for the DREAM Act so far was in late 2010, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed it but it had only 55 votes in the Senate and could not be brought forward for a vote. (See Mahoney story at left.)

Meanwhile, students like Yazmin continue to struggle and hope. She is working for minimum wage at a cleaner’s and taking classes at Northeastern Illinois University.

Maria Munoz is praying. She is a citizen because her father is a citizen, and he is a citizen because his father was a bracero — a legal migrant worker under a program that no longer exists — and was sponsored by one of his employers.

She was among the young people who spoke in parishes, doing so on behalf of a friend, someone who graduated with her from the University of Wisconsin at Madison but has not been able to find work without legal status.

“We are all human beings. We all try our best to work hard and get ahead in life,” said Munoz, 24. “Myself, as a Catholic — it crushes me to see other people struggling and not have the same opportunities as me and not be able to do anything about it.”

Yazmin has encountered people who tell her she should just go back to Mexico — a place she has no memory of. She had no say in moving here and the U.S. has already invested in her education.

“They paid for my education from kindergarten through high school,” she said. “How much did that cost? Why do they want to send that all back to Mexico? I’m not asking them to pay for my college education. I just want a little bit of help.”