Immigrant youth advocates lauded

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / February 14, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — In November, students huddled in an upstairs room in a Harvard Square church and spoke about having to put their college and career dreams on hold because of their immigration status.

The students, members of a youth advocacy group, were speaking to a small group of people at First Parish in Cambridge in the weeks leading up to a vote on the federal Dream Act, a controversial bill that would give children of illegal immigrants a path to legal residency, which failed in December in the US Senate.

Yesterday, nearly two months after the defeat of the Dream Act, members of the Boston-based Student Immigrant Movement returned to First Parish to accept an award for their commitment to what the church views as a more humane approach to immigration policy.

In accepting the award, the young people pledged to continue fighting for greater access to higher education for undocumented students.

Nelsy Hoyos, 19, a senior at Chelsea High School, crossed the Mexican border she was 6 years old, along with her mother and other relatives.

“I was the first one to go down [into the tunnel] and then it was my mom and my sister. We just walked through the tunnel, and the next thing I know we just opened up [an exit] and we just came up,’’ she said in a phone interview after speaking at the church.

Hoyos said she returned to Mexico at age 13, but struggled in school after having grown accustomed to English-language classes in Chelsea. She returned to the United States on her own at 16 to enroll at Chelsea High, but her schooling was put on hold while she worked two jobs to make ends meet and moved from place to place with friends and relatives. She started classes last year as a junior.

“It’s been tough,’’ said Hoyos, who recently quit an overnight job cleaning at local fitness centers to focus on her studies. She still works part time at a laundromat in Boston.

On track to graduate this spring, Hoyos hopes to one day study accounting at a four-year college. But she said that as a student in the country illegally, she cannot apply for many loans and scholarships and is going public with her struggle, despite the risk of deportation.

“I’m not afraid of saying it,’’ she told the congregation at First Parish. “Being undocumented . . . is about fighting and reaching.’’

After the defeat of the Dream Act, the Student Immigrant Movement is now focused on a bill pending in the Legislature that would allow illegal immigrants who are graduates of Massachusetts high schools and have lived in the state for at least three years to pay in-state tuition in the public university system, except at the public law and medical schools, according to spokesman Deivid Ribeiro.

But, he added, advocates across the country have not given up on the Dream Act, which would allow youths to obtain legal residency in part by enrolling in college or enlisting in the military, provided they arrived in the country before the age of 16, among other requirements. The measure has stalled repeatedly in Congress.

“It is still possible, yes,’’ Ribeiro said.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which backs tighter immigration restrictions, said that possibility is unlikely this session.

He said approximately 10 states offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, though he knows of no other states besides Massachusetts where a similar policy is pending. He said the policies have prompted several legal challenges because Congress passed a bill in 1996 requiring that states offer in-state tuition to any US resident if they offer it to illegal immigrants, and the states have not complied.

“This is an unwarranted benefit to people in the country illegally at the expense of taxpayers and really at the expense of other people’s kids [who are in the country legally] trying to get an education at a public university,’’ Mehlman said.

But the Rev. Fred Small, senior minister at First Parish, indicated during yesterday’s service that his congregation will support the student immigration activists in their efforts.

The church also collected signatures for a petition yesterday urging Governor Deval Patrick to rescind his announcement in December that the state would join a federal program in which the fingerprints of suspects in State Police custody are automatically run against a federal immigration database.

Federal immigration officials then decide whether to detain immigrants based on factors such as their criminal records and flight risk, under terms of the program.

Small said that while he admittedly does not know everything about the complexities of the immigration debate, “I know that deporting people to countries they’ve never known, where they may not even speak the language, is not only heartless — it’s senseless.’’

Travis Andersen can be reached at