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A dream deferred

"A dream deferred" Continued...

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

Despite such clauses, the DREAM Act has floundered in Congress. Many Republicans and some Democrats want the larger questions of border security answered before passing any other immigration legislation. The act has come up for a vote several times since lawmakers first introduced it in 2001 but failed to win passage. In 2007 it garnered a bipartisan vote of 52-44 in the Senate but failed to reach the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

Some former Republican supporters of the act switched positions after coming under fire for supporting any form of immigration "amnesty." Sens. John McCain, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl, and Lindsey Graham ended up voting against the law when it came up again in December 2010. The law passed in the House but fell five votes short in the Senate.

McCain said he sympathized with students, but securing the borders is the number one priority and a constitutional duty: "Once we fulfill this commitment, we can then address all of the issues plaguing our broken immigration system. There simply isn't sufficient political support to do anything before we secure our borders and there won't be until we do."

Five Democratic senators also voted against the 2010 bill, including North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan. In a letter to her constituents she said, "I do not support this bill as a stand-alone measure. I oppose amnesty, and I strongly believe the United States must take the necessary steps to fix the way we handle the entire issue of illegal immigration."

Hagan serves a state about 1,500 miles from the Mexican border that has had an influx of illegal immigrants during the past 20 years. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, North Carolina's mild climate and its jobs in construction, textiles, agriculture, tobacco, and meat processing have attracted 325,000 illegal immigrants-that's 5.4 percent of the Tar Heel state's labor force.

On Central Avenue in Charlotte, N.C., brightly colored piñatas line a wall at a Latin music store. Around the store sit bins of Spanish pop music cassette tapes and shelves filled with DVD sets of telenovellas-Spanish-language soap operas. Positioned on the corner of a strip mall, the small shop is next to El Banco de la Gente and a supermarket that sells horchata, a cinnamon milk drink popular in Latin America. Signs all along the street advertise "Cambiar cheque (cash check)," El Salvadorean bakeries, and immigration services.

In July, La Noticia, a Spanish-language newspaper sold in front of the supermarket, had on its front page the face of 22-year-old Erick Velazquillo. Driving home from the gym one night in 2010, Velazquillo saw red and blue flashing lights behind him. Police pulled him over for having his high beams on. They asked for his driver's license-and saw that it had expired two years earlier. (Velazquillo had obtained his license before North Carolina tightened its laws in 2006.)

Police learned that although Velazquillo had lived in the United States since he was two years old, he didn't have a green card or social security number. The Central Piedmont Community College student spent three days in jail and faced deportation to Mexico-even though Velazquillo doesn't know anyone in Mexico except his 70-year-old grandparents. Advocacy groups such as the NC DREAM Team took up his case: In July Velazquillo told us, "Right now I'm kind of like in limbo. I mean sometimes it doesn't feel real. Its like wow I really went public with my case and pretty much everybody knows about it."

Later in the summer, amid massive media publicity, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials decided to let Velazquillo stay in Charlotte-for now. While his case brought attention to the 51,000 North Carolina students who would benefit from the DREAM Act, it also highlighted the concerns of DREAM Act critics like Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph. Pendergraph says illegal immigrants cost his county millions of dollars for education, healthcare, and social programs. He also complains about illegal immigrants in Charlotte "driving around with no license or insurance."

Ron Woodard, of NC Listen, an immigration reform group, said "every illegal immigrant is disenfranchising an American one for one." During bad economic times when many Americans are out of work, Woodard believes illegal immigrants take low-skilled jobs away from American workers and bring to public schools an influx of immigrant children, many of whom don't speak English. He fears the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students to take slots at colleges and universities away from U.S. students.

Dan Ramirez, a legal immigrant from Colombia and a former member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, worries about "gangs from New York and California setting up here because it's a prosperous city."

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