When it comes to our country's undocumented students — known as DREAMers, named after the decade-long DREAM Act bill — there are a few numbers that come to mind. For example, 19: the number of states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented college students. Or four: the number of states — Alabama, Georgia, Montana, and Arizona — that have laws preventing and discouraging undocumented students to pursue college.
There's also 2.1 million, the number of people who are DREAM Act-eligible undocumented immigrants. Or 1.7 million, the number DREAMers who are eligible for the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides some protection and relief. And there's 65,000, the number of undocumented students who graduate from American high schools each year.
As of Tuesday morning, there's a new number: 25 million.
That's $25 million in scholarships for DREAMers, from the largest fund created yet for our country's undocumented youth courtesy of a new group called TheDream.us, billed as "the 'Pell Grant' for DREAMers." But TheDream.us, whose board of advisers I now sit on, is more than a scholarship fund. The group was founded by an unlikely alliance of three leaders — Henry R. Munoz III, the finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee; Carlos Gutierrez, who served as commerce secretary under President George W. Bush; and Donald E. Graham, the former owner of the Washington Post, the CEO of Graham Holdings. Munoz, Gutierrez, and Graham may disagree on specific policies but they agree on the fate of DREAMers: they should be educated and welcomed as integral members of American society.
At a press conference introducing the initiative, Graham said, "Why help DREAMers? Because it will be terrible for them and for our country if we do not do it. Because there is no telling what many of them will achieve if we do help."
Underscoring the politically volatile issue of immigration reform, Gutierrez added, "This is not a partisan project. This is an American project."
The group's program director is Maria Gabriela Pacheco — "Gaby" to the undocumented community — the revered immigration activist who inspired many (including me) when she, along with three other activists, walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., in 2010 to advocate for the DREAM Act, which passed the House of Representatives but was blocked in the Senate. After reading about Gaby in news stories, I watched videos of her on YouTube and later friended her on Facebook. A friendship was born. It was Gaby who first told me about the yet-unnamed initiative last summer, and she recruited me to serve on its board of advisers, which also include Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, the largest youth-led network of DREAMers. Candy Marshall, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated to the scholarship fund, serves as president of TheDream.us.
The goal in the next academic year, organizers said, is to award full-tuition college scholarships to 1,000 students to attend a small group of preapproved colleges and pursue a career in nursing, teaching, computers, and business. (The preapproved colleges are located in New York, Texas, Florida, and the District of Columbia.) Several of the schools are community colleges and one is online — Mount Washington College, owned by Kaplan, part of Graham's company, Graham Holdings. More colleges will be added to the group, and more funds will be raised.
And TheDream.us, in a way, is also about history — specifically, the evolving history of the DREAM Act and DREAMers in America.
Among the GOP candidates in the 2012 campaign, the DREAM Act was a demographic and political third rail issue. When Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, home to the second largest population of undocumented immigrations, said his fellow presidential hopefuls were "heartless" for criticizing his support for in-state tuition for DREAMers — Perry signed the bill in 2001 — pundits and political observers declared his campaign dead.
But because of continued activism and advocacy, specifically of DREAMers themselves, the tide has turned. Last week, House Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, outlined their support for giving a path to citizenship to DREAMers in their one-page "Immigration Reform Principles." Now, Graham, part of the most storied families in the the nation's capital, and one of the most respected public figures in Washington, D.C., has launched a scholarship fund for DREAMers. And Graham has joined Mark Zuckerberg (co-founder of the group FWD.us) and Michael Bloomberg (co-chair of Partnership for a New American Economy), among others, as one of the most high-profile allies of undocumented immigrants. Graham excitedly told me that Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and Rupert Murdoch learned about TheDream.us and approved of the idea. Norquist attended the morning press conference and told me that he supports the DREAM Act as part of a piece-meal way to address the country's 11 million undocumented population.
Within the immigrants rights movement, people like me are jokingly referred to as "elder DREAMers." I did not qualify under DACA when it was announced in June 2012; I missed the cutoff by a few months. I attended Mountain View High School in the late 1990s, when there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter — no way for an undocumented student like me to connect with others. That was a time when people like me were called "illegals," and the future seemed so dim and scary, so uncertain and volatile. And you found hope wherever you can.
One afternoon after school, while looking at books at the Mountain View Public Library, I found hope in this poem by the great Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Today is a great day to be a DREAMer.