City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn recently announced that New York City will invest $18 million in adult education classes and GED programs for undocumented immigrants. This initiative was launched in an effort to help undocumented New Yorkers get the education required to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which was passed last year via an executive order from President Barack Obama, “to give young undocumented people the ability to work legally in the United States.”
As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I am proud that my city is putting in so much effort to help its immigrant population, especially as immigration reform stalls in Congress. I agree with City Council candidate John Lisyanskiy, who is himself an immigrant from Ukraine, that the $18 million initiative is a “hallmark achievement for [the] city.”
In order to be eligible for the program, DACA applicants must have or be working toward a high school diploma or GED. The $18 million will be split, “with $13.7 million going toward adult education programs and legal services administered through the Department of Youth and Community Development, and $4.3 million for the City University of New York,” the city’s public higher education system. The focus is on creating more adult education classes to help prospective applicants meet the education criterion; existing programs are already at capacity.
Unlike immigrants with legal status, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for federal loans, scholarships, or in-state tuition, a trio of disadvantages that discourages students from completing high school, leaving them to work in low-wage, dead-end jobs. Consequently, many undocumented immigrants drop out of high school; the dropout rate among undocumented Mexicans is an astonishing 50%, higher than that of any other demographic group in the city.
In fact, undocumented immigrants, and Mexicans in particular, face what CUNY professor Dr. Robert C. Smith termed, “a perfect storm of educational disadvantage.” Many are here illegally and live in poverty. Their parents work multiple jobs, and have little time to get involved with their children’s education. Language barriers further isolate the parents from their children’s school life. In addition, there are fewer tutoring and mentoring programs available for Mexican immigrants than for other immigrant groups.
Unfortunately, after confronting such unfavorable conditions, many of undocumented students to cut classes or skip school altogether. Ivan Lucero, who came to the Bronx illegally with his mother when he was six, began skipping classes and formed a gang. His father worked long days and his mother could not speak English, effectively disengaging them from his education. Another immigrant, Margarita Lopez, who also emigrated to New York City illegally when she was six, says that because of her status, she has been unable to find a job, and that the $18 million initiative will help her get the education she needs to apply for DACA. She is currently 24 years old.
DACA has already helped change the lives of many undocumented immigrants, despite its strict requirements. One such success story is Yessica Martinez, a Princeton University student who could not work on the books because she had immigrated illegally from Colombia. Martinez volunteered at a nonprofit last summer. After taking advantage of DACA, which gave her a work permit and Social Security card, she is now a paid equity research intern at Bank of America.
The immigrants who endure hardships to come to the United States are each unique reservoirs of untapped potential, and I believe that if we invest in them now, America will reap great benefits in the future. Moreover, New York City would not be New York City without the diversity its immigrants have created. Such diversity makes it one of the greatest and most iconic cities in the world, and is why I can't imagine calling any other place "home."