No More DREAMs Deferred

African Immigrants Make Their DREAM Act Case for Legal Status in America

Folayemi Agbede and Ann Garcia profile brave young Africans who are going public despite their illegal status in support of legislation enabling them to remain in the country.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) speaks during a news conference about the DREAM Act on Capitol Hill in Washington. Durbin and 32 other senators reintroduced the DREAM Act on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. (AP/Alex Brandon)
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) speaks during a news conference about the DREAM Act on Capitol Hill in Washington. Durbin and 32 other senators reintroduced the DREAM Act on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. (AP/Alex Brandon)

“My parents didn’t bring me to the United States with the intention of making me undocumented,” says Tolu Olubunmi. Tolu, a U.S.-educated engineer, spoke last Wednesday on Capitol Hill in support of the reintroduction of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Following remarks by long-time DREAM champion Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the poised and graceful Tolu told a heart-wrenching story about arriving in America at age 14, fleeing the decades-old political instabilities of southern Nigeria, in order to find solace in America. Her dream of becoming an engineer since the tender age of 8 was almost dashed when she could not afford to apply to college as she neared graduation from high school. But after doggedly gaining acceptance and completing her studies, she received her bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Yet 10 years after graduation, she remains unable to enter her chosen profession. Why? Because she is one of the millions of immigrants in America who lack the legal right to be here. Her life story is emblematic of the promise the DREAM Act can fulfill—enabling Tolu and approximately 800,000 other young immigrants who arrived to the United States at age 15 or younger to legalize their immigration status and get on a pathway to U.S. citizenship if they:

  • Have lived in the United States for at least five years
  • Have obtained a diploma from a U.S. high school or a GED
  • Are of good moral character
  • Are willing to attend college or serve in the military for at least two years

The DREAM Act would grant this same opportunity to prospective DREAMers currently in elementary or secondary school. This legislation, which enjoys the support of approximately 70 percent of voters, would allow Tolu to achieve her dreams.

Like her, there are an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. About 81 percent are Latino. The remaining 19 percent are from Asia, Europe, and Canada, with 3 percent, or approximately 400,000, being from African countries. A subset of these immigrants are DREAM-eligible.

Tolu is leading the way in giving a voice to the thousands of students from Africa who are eligible DREAMers. By speaking up, she is challenging the shame many in her community feel due to their irregular legal status. She shared during an interview with us that at the time of her first TV interview, she was afraid of the retribution of revealing her undocumented status, and worried there would be little support from others of African descent in the United States. It was a “shameful thing” she said, something many who are born here or are legally living here do not always understand.

In order to strengthen the fabric of the struggle—to help all undocumented immigrants regularize their status—immigration reform advocates must continue to put their weight behind those who affirm the consequences of the United States’ broken immigration system on various communities. The African diaspora, too, must continue to do its part in supporting and reiterating the experiences that block Latino and African immigrants alike from regularizing their status.

For immigrants like Tolu, who arrive in the country with the proper paperwork but stay here under precarious conditions, “it’s incredibly easy to become undocumented and almost impossible to fix your status in the United States,” she explains. While their experiences and state of limbo unites all DREAMers, the manner in which African students become undocumented is often different than those who enter the United States illegally in the first place.

Most African immigrants enter the United States legally, by presenting a visa such as a tourist or student visa. These types of visas are “nonimmigrant,” meaning that they do not give the visa holder a right to stay in the country permanently, and they have certain requirements that must be met or the visa holder will fall out of status and become undocumented. Our current immigration laws are designed such that if one falls out of legal status, there is generally no way for them to rectify their status while in the United States.

Undocumented is not a status anyone would choose if there were a legal alternative. The daily life of an undocumented person is made difficult by many things such as an inability to get a driver’s license, pay for and in some states enroll in higher education, and work for fair wages. But it is a circumstance that our current, broken immigration laws make impossible to escape.

That’s why it is critical to continue to amplify Tolu’s story. And Kemi Bello’s story. And Martine Mwanj Kalaw’s story. These African DREAMers never intended to be in the United States undocumented and incapable of living out the aspirations of their flights into a new life. They just fell afoul of our nation’s critically broken immigration system. But dreams deferred won’t stop them from testifying about the importance of the DREAM Act to them and thousands of other African immigrants.

And the DREAM Act’s broad promise is drawing many of them to speak out, showing us how far, wide, and deep the failure of the immigration system is in our country. For that, we can’t help but be proud to see DREAMers making their case on Capitol Hill and online. For them, we can’t help but emphasize their voices along with that of all immigrants and advocates across the country. With them, we rally behind this renewed call for a chance to live with dignity where there are no other dignified choices.

Folayemi Agbede is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 and Ann Garcia is a Research Assistant for Immigration Policy at American Progress.

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Ann Garcia

Policy Analyst