Nationally-renowned immigration scholar, educator, activist, and Distinguished Chair of the University of Houston Law Department Michael A. Olivas spoke in favor of the DREAM Act Oct. 10 at Pomona’s Rose Hills Theater. His visit to Claremont comes in the wake of Governor Jerry Brown’s Oct. 8 signing of the DREAM Act into California law, which grants all illegal immigrant students eligibility for state scholarships and financial aid.
Olivas has been involved in immigration cases and DREAM Act issues since the pivotal Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision, which guaranteed free primary and secondary public education to all students regardless of citizenship status. He began the talk by emphasizing the positive economic and societal benefits that immigrants bring to America.
“These families contribute to the overall economy, take jobs that others don’t want, [and] pay taxes, all the while ineligible for any benefits that come from [those taxes],” he said. “College-age immigrants… represent success stories of substantial accomplishments.”
“The U.S. needs this talent pool,” he added. “These students have every incentive to stay in the U.S., they are loyal to the U.S., and they contribute to the U.S. economy.”
Olivas also warned his audience about “restrictionists,” people who politicize their “fear and loathing of the unknown” through calls for mass deportations and an end to birth-right citizenship. According to Olivas, even as states such as California are passing reforms that increase opportunities for undocumented students, other states are pulling in the opposite direction. One such state is Alabama, which passed legislation earlier this month authorizing police to detain any persons suspected of being in the country illegally if they cannot provide proper documentation.
Notwithstanding sentiments of grief or applause for state decisions, Olivas said he remains focused on the broader goal of achieving comprehensive immigration inform at the federal level.
“We cannot have 50 immigration policies, we can only have one, and it can’t look like a checkerboard,” he said. “We must have federal law, not just state ordinances.”
Jessica Valenzuela PO ’12, a longtime activist for the DREAM Act, said she agreed with Olivas’ position.
“I’m glad that California is taking a progressive stance, but states shouldn’t regulate immigration; it is a federal responsibility,” she said. Federal legislation, she argued, would preclude the backlash that is currently brewing in the state of California and could fuel a possible 2012 election proposition that would eliminate major accomplishments of California’s DREAM Act.
“I can definitely see a parallel between that and Prop 8… in the end, our struggles are one,” she said.
Olivas ended his talk with an entreaty to DREAM students.
“Do not out yourselves,” he said. “Every day, newspapers are replete with stories of students who are repatriated. You cannot do the kind of work we need you to do if you are deported.”
Valenzuela criticized this comment as generalizing a more complicated issue.
“I think he was making a sweeping generalization,” she said. “There is validity to the argument that being out makes you a target for [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] but I don’t think that’s always the case for a lot of students.”
“Being out is one of the key pillars in the DREAM Act movement, being empowered through their status and shedding light on these issues,” she added. “Otherwise, they’re depriving their community of knowing someone who is undocumented and beginning that discourse.”