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Harvard president, student team up for the Dream Act

Visit D.C. to urge approval of new path to residency

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and an immigrant student detained in June for being in the United States illegally from Mexico joined forces in Washington yesterday to urge the Senate to pass legislation that would let youths like him apply for legal residency.

Faust and sophomore Eric Balderas paid a symbolic visit to the office of Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, to promote the Dream Act, as the measure is gathering steam for a possible vote next week, said Durbin spokesman Max Gleischman.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said this week that he wants to attach the act to a defense bill and bring it up for a vote. Balderas was detained on his way back to Harvard for the summer, and Durbin personally stepped in to prevent his deportation.

“I’m anxious to do this,’’ said Durbin, a chief sponsor of the bill, before meeting with Faust and Balderas. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and look me in the eye and ask me, ‘When is this going to happen?’ It breaks my heart. Many of them have tears in their eyes. . . . They come forward and say, ‘It’s my life, give me a chance.’ That’s what I’m going to try to do.’’

Advocates of the Dream Act — who include college presidents such as Faust, business leaders, and the College Board — say the act helps youths like Balderas, who did not knowingly break the law by coming into this country illegally. His parents brought him here from Mexico when he was 4 years old. He was his high school’s valedictorian in San Antonio, Texas, and he won a scholarship to Harvard, where he hopes to become a cancer researcher.

After the meeting, Faust issued a statement thanking Durbin and urging passage of the act, saying it “would throw a lifeline to thousands of students across the country like Eric who, through no fault of their own, face uncertain futures due to their immigration status.

“These young men and women are working hard in school and are dedicated to a future living in and contributing to our communities or serving in the military,’’ she said. “I believe it is in our best interest to educate all students to their full potential.’’

The Dream Act would create a path to legal residency for youths who arrived before they turned 16, have lived here for five consecutive years, and are of good moral character, meaning that they have no criminal records. To qualify, the youths must graduate from high school or obtain a GED, complete two years in college or in the military, and be under 35 years old.

The unexpected push comes amid frustration among immigrant advocates and Latino voters over the stall of immigration reform in Washington, despite President Obama’s pledge to tackle the issue in his first year in office. About 11 million immigrants are in the country illegally, including about 1.1 million children, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released this month. Dream Act sponsors estimate that fewer youths, probably in the tens of thousands, would actually qualify for legal residency because of the requirements.

Despite the jump-start this week, the Dream Act faces multiple hurdles and will require some hard-to-get support from Republicans. Durbin and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar are the official cosponsors of the bipartisan act, but Republicans generally oppose it.

Opponents of the Dream Act say the measure would reward immigrant families who broke the law by coming to the country illegally. They also criticized it for lacking enforcement provisions against those who fail to meet the requirements, and for being unfair to those who waited to come to the United States legally.

They accused Reid of trying to curry political favor among voters in his home state of Nevada, where he is locked in a tough re-election battle. About 19 percent of Nevada’s population is foreign-born and a quarter is Latino.

“Senator Reid’s attempt to pass amnesty shortly before the November elections is a sign of desperation,’’ William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, which favors strict controls on immigration, said in a statement. “The more he pushes the Dream Act, the more Democrats across America will pay at the ballot box in November.’’

Balderas was on his way back to Cambridge last June to work in a laboratory all summer when he was detained at the airport for failing to have legal papers. Durbin lobbied on his behalf, and federal immigration officials agreed not to deport him.

“Every year 65,000 youths graduate from high school, and they’re unable to contribute to the only country they know is their home,’’ said Kyle de Beausset, a blogger and activist in Washington yesterday to lobby for the measure. He met with Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts a few months ago to lobby for the Dream Act.

Brown declined to comment yesterday through a spokeswoman.

Eva A. Millona, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, was also in Washington yesterday. She acknowledged that advocates changed strategy by pushing first for the Dream Act but said they will still pursue broader immigration reform.

She was cheered by news that Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said yesterday that he would file a comprehensive immigration-reform bill by the end of the month, a spokeswoman said.

“We haven’t given up on comprehensive immigration reform,’’ she said.

If the measure and the defense bill pass the Senate, it would still require passage by the House and the president, who has supported the Dream Act.

At home on Cape Cod yesterday, 22-year-old Carlos Savio Oliveira was tracking the news online. He graduated from high school and wanted to join the Navy but couldn’t because he has been here illegally from Brazil since he was 8 years old. Now he has hope, he said.

“If it passes then it literally will change everything,’’ he said. “I always wanted to join the military. It would be my next step.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at MSacchetti@globe.com.

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