Student activists pleased with Illinois DREAM Act passage

June 15, 2011
Jeremy Mikula

When Illinois passed its own version of the DREAM Act in late May, a number of organizations and student groups from all over the state could take credit in the successful lobbying effort.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) were the key organizers, but smaller groups of students — such as one from DePaul — also played a role in joining with these organizations to lobby for the bill.

DePaul’s involvement in pushing for the bill has been going on all year, with voices becoming loudest at an April rally at a Southwest Side parish that packed in about 1,000 total supporters. DePaul students also traveled to Springfield twice this school year: once to lobby the Senate and once to speak directly to members of the House.

“It was really strong to see how we were able to empower ourselves and talk to the representatives,” said Pamela Barrientos, 21, who helped organize DePaul students.

After passing the Illinois Senate earlier this month, the bill moved to the House, which voted in favor of the bill 61-53. Gov. Pat Quinn still hasn’t signed the bipartisan bill into law, but Barrientos is hopeful that he will.

“I’m really excited and proud that DePaul students were able to participate in the passing of the Illinois DREAM Act, but it’s important to note that it’s been a project that so many other people have poured hours of time and energy into making it a reality,” Barrientos said. “The IYJL and the ICIRR led the way in organizing the solidarity with undocumented students in the state of Illinois and around the country.”

Lawrence Benito, deputy director of ICIRR who led the effort to win approval in the General Assembly, called the bipartisan vote “truly historic” in an ICIRR statement.

Illinois’ version of the DREAM Act differs from the hotly debated one proposed at the federal level. The bill passed in Illinois would establish a volunteer state commission that would generate correct information about schooling options for undocumented students. The bill will also create a privately-funded Illinois DREAM Fund, which would make scholarships available to undocumented students and create college savings programs and prepaid tuition programs. The state bill does not include a change in citizenship status.

After the federal DREAM Act failed in Congress last year, ICIRR and IYJL worked on gaining support from various leaders throughout the state. Included among those in favor of the bill are 14 university and college presidents, including DePaul president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., and the presidents of Loyola and Northwestern. Cardinal Francis George, in addition to other religious leaders, also supported the bill.

“[T]hose efforts paid off, showing that Illinois is not only an immigrant-friendly state but also a national leader on moving fair, humane, and practical solutions forward,” ICIRR’s statement said. “The passage of this bill also shows the growing political power of immigrant communities.”

In addition to the work done by ICIRR, IYJL and the students who lobbied for the passage of the bill, Barrientos feels that undocumented students deserve credit as well.

“Undocumented students themselves are who deserve the most recognition for being brave and advocating for an opportunity which will not only impact their lives, but the lives of younger students who believe in education” Barrientos said.