A Dream Deferred: Undocumented Students at Harvard and the Urgency for Congressional Action


 “A Dream Deferred” is a documentary film produced by the Harvard Law Documentary Studio and directed by Dario Guerrero and Alex Boota, students at Harvard College. The film follows four Harvard students as the deal with the burden no other students must deal with; they are undocumented.

Opinion Editorial

“What happens to a dream deferred?”  That pondering question posed by Langston Hughes in 1951 transcends its literary and historic context to resonate with today’s political reality as the United States Congress delays legislative action on comprehensive immigration reform.

In June 2012, the Obama administration initiated the Department of Homeland Security enforcement program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This measure grants temporary reprieve from deportation for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. These youth are colloquially known as “DREAMers,” a moniker adopted from the federal DREAM Act that has consistently failed to pass in Congress since it was first introduced in 2001. Through DACA, eligible DREAMers were effectively given temporary legal recognition as low-level enforcement priorities, putting them in the back of the line for deportation. Those that qualified were granted work authorization, allowing them to obtain a social security number, and, in certain states, authorization to obtain a drivers license. As of October 2013, the Department of Homeland security has processed over half a million Deferred Action applications. President Obama’s announcement of the initiative was a groundbreaking moment that brought dignity and recognition to a population of young people who are Americans in every way but on paper.

However, even with the temporary protections of Deferred Action, DREAMers still sit in American classrooms carrying a burden that sets them apart from their classmates.  Short of legislation that grants them legal status, DREAMers will continue to face an existential uncertainty. Will they continue to live in political limbo as semi-Americans who lack the civic opportunities and responsibilities that their peers enjoy? Will they face separation from family members who are excluded from the protections of Deferred Action? Will they be able to finally realize their dreams of full inclusion in a country that they have long called home? Those living with these questions are not abstract segments of our population. In fact, some of these students are here, fellow students and colleagues at Harvard University.

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Dario Guerrero, a junior at Harvard College and recent Deferred Action grantee, created a short documentary film to highlight the stories of these Harvard DREAMers. Even as they pursue the higher education that they have earned, these students must also deal with the pressures imposed by their immigration status.  Despite their tenacity and talent, they walk through Harvard Yard with the same uncertainty felt by thousands of DREAMers across the country.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was never intended to be lawful immigration status. Indeed, only the U.S. Congress is constitutionally empowered to create immigration law. This two-year administrative protection is only a temporary measure that brings semi-normalcy to the lives of DREAMers. Despite this progressive measure, substantive reforms to America’s immigration system remains in the hands of a dysfunctional House of Representatives.

One year after implementing DACA, the U.S Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act in June 2013. The bi-partisan support for this bill was a result of political momentum generated by Latino voter participation in the 2012 Presidential election. President Obama carried over 70 percent of the Latino electorate, sending shockwaves through the Republican political establishment to make immigration reform a priority. With continuing demographic shifts in the population, Republican Senators like Marco Rubio and John McCain understood the political implications of immigration reform and spearheaded Republican support in the Senate. However, their colleagues in the House of Representatives have stalled the legislation and killed any momentum generated by bipartisan approval in the Senate.

With the battle over the debt ceiling delayed for a couple of months, there is now a small window of opportunity for members of Congress to act on immigration reform. House Democrats recently introduced H.R. 15, a bill that mirrors the legislation passed by the Senate. The comprehensive bill would address the multiple flaws in our immigration system including the creation of a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and the other 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In addition, there is also speculation that Republican House leadership will introduce the KIDS Act, which would only provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers. The KIDS Act would be a significant step toward normalizing the status of DREAMers, but, like Deferred Action, it falls short of fully tackling the problem of immigration. It may provide Republicans with a legislative victory–but in doing so, it will reinforce the recent lessons learned from the government shutdown and fiscal crisis.  We have congressional leaders that govern through crisis and lack the political courage to adequately deal with the deep fundamental problems facing our country today.

The House vote to end to the government shutdown may provide the political roadmap to make progress in fixing our broken immigration system. After weeks of a small group of Republicans stalling the vote on a resolution to fund the federal government and end the shutdown, a majority of the House formed by both Democrats and Republicans, joined together to re-open the government. Even though the vote violated the “Hastert Rule” of not allowing legislation on the floor without a majority of support from the Republican Party, the determination of the joined parties prevailed. Similarly, H.R. 15 would also require Speaker Boehner to overlook the “Hastert Rule” and side with the majority. H.R. 15 currently has 182 co-sponsors and may be able to garner enough support from moderate Republicans to amount to the 215-vote threshold required for approval. Although, this is aspirational, considering the political ramifications it would create within the Republican Party, it may be the only way to move legislation of this magnitude forward.

Speaker Boehner and Congressional leaders must work through the acrimonious partisan divide and muster up the political and moral courage to act now. Failure to take action on immigration this year will result in the continuation of a governing pattern that resorts to passing the buck rather than arriving at actionable solutions. The American people, DREAMers, and the other 11 million undocumented immigrants deserve a vote. They need to know where their political leaders stand. They need to know whether the American Dream will finally lay within their reach, or if it will continue being their dream deferred.

Juan M. Salazar is a Masters in Public Policy Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. All expressed views and opinions are that of the author and may not represent the views of the HJHP Editorial Board.

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Juan M. Salazar

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