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Immigrant students get crash course in DREAM Act

Local high school kids learn about scams, rights and available help

Although Gov. Jerry Brown signed California's DREAM Act into law two years ago this month, it isn't always clear to eligible students how to take advantage of the new legislation. Some of that confusion was cleared up Sept. 25 at an immigration rights workshop held at Mountain View High School.

The event, organized by local immigrant rights activist Elena Pacheco, provided answers to Mountain View and Los Altos high school students who immigrated to the U.S. illegally -- often when they were very young and who now want to apply for state grants to help them attend college.

More than 20 teens and parents attended the workshop at Mountain View High School's Spartan Theatre, where speakers with expertise in immigration law explained the difference between California's DREAM Act -- passed in October of 2011 -- and the proposed federal DREAM Act, which has not been signed into law. Attendees also learned about "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," a discretionary policy put forward by President Barack Obama, which allows temporary protection from deportation for immigrant youth living illegally in the U.S.

Immigration experts warned the attendees -- most of whom are living in the country without proper documentation -- to beware of scam artists, who might extract money in exchange for immigration help that never comes.

Afterward, attendees were given the chance to visit with representatives from a variety of immigrant advocacy organizations, including a group from Foothill College, a local branch of the Mexican Consulate, and Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco-based non-profit which helps undocumented students go to college and university.

Manny Diaz attended the event representing the Foothill College organization Students United Encouraging 'N Achieving -- or "SUENA," which translates to "dream" in Spanish. Like many who attended the Sept. 25 workshop, Diaz grew up under the shadow of the label "illegal immigrant," even though he came to the country when he was 2 years old and considers the U.S. his home.

He eventually became a legal citizen after his father applied for and was granted permanent residency. It came just in time for Diaz, who was 17 at the time. He was able to apply for financial aid from the state and federal government, was accepted to U.C. Berkeley, and graduated with a degree in social welfare in 2011.

"I'm grateful, but I also feel guilty," Diaz said. While he and his nuclear family have all been granted permanent residency in the U.S., he still has many extended family members who live in constant fear of deportation.

His guilt has motivated him to help undocumented youth attain the education he values so dearly.

After the presentation and before attendees went to talk to representatives like Diaz, there was a question-and-answer session. During the session, a woman living in the country illegally revealed she had been scammed by a person claiming to be an "immigration consultant." The con artist took her money and disappeared.

The anecdote underscored just how little many in the undocumented community understand about their rights.

One of the Mountain View High School students who attended the event said she learned a lot at the presentation. "I didn't know that I could get money from the government to go to college," said the girl, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala five years ago and asked to remain anonymous because she was undocumented.

Now that she knows about she is eligible for grants under California's DREAM Act, college seems more within her reach, she said, adding that she might want to study to become a nurse or a teacher. "I like taking care of babies and taking care of people."

A pair of sisters who came to the event with their parents said their entire family left Mexico for the U.S., even though they were living more comfortably south of the border. The girls' father and mother said it was true: they owned a house in Mexico and they currently rent in Mountain View.

"I saw that my girls would have a better opportunity in this country than in Mexico," their father said, adding that it was a tough decision, but he still thinks he has done right by his family.

Their mother agreed. She said she wanted her daughters to come to the event so that they could learn about their options for higher education, noting that she is very appreciative of California's DREAM Act and the opportunity it will give her daughters to go to college. She believes that her daughters will do great things one day, as long as they work hard and take opportunities when they are given. "I keep telling my daughters: 'You have to keep trying.'"

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