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"The Dream is Now," a Documentary Film

Speakers: Alexandra Starr, Emerson Fellow, New America Foundation, and Ola Kaso, Film Subject, "The Dream is Now"
Presider: Calvin Sims, Program Officer, Ford Foundation
June 26, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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CALVIN SIMS: Well, let's give another round of applause for that film and the producer. (Applause.) Very powerful stuff.

I'm Calvin Sims. I'm program officer with the Ford Foundation and I'm pleased to welcome you to this discussion following the film. And we're here with Olga (sic). And so you were featured prominently in this film and I want to start by asking you what is your current status, especially under the executive order that the president has issued. Where do you stand now?

OLA KASO: So I actually haven't applied for DACA. I have applied for Deferred Action for another year because if I apply for DACA, then that doesn't apply to my mother as well.

SIMS: OK. And so if you haven't applied for -- you have another year before you have to actually go back. Every two years, you have to reapply for this.

KASO: I reapply annually.

SIMS: Annually, OK. And your mother?

KASO: She -- I apply on her behalf as well.

SIMS: On her behalf as well, OK. Were you active in the sort of student protests that led to this executive order? How active were you in that?

KASO: I actually wasn't active in immigration at all until I was almost deported. That's when I really stepped out and started sharing my story and becoming more involved.

SIMS: And today, how much -- how involved are you today?

KASO: I'm much more involved today. I just wrapped up an internship in Washington, D.C., to really be at the forefront while this debate was going on.

SIMS: How many other friends or relatives do you know who are in your same situation?

KASO: At first, I really didn't know many at all, but as I started sharing my story, I had people coming up to me and people messaging me on Facebook and sending me emails and getting my number from God knows where. And since then, the messages haven't stopped. The emails haven't stopped. The phone calls haven't stopped. People reach out all the time and say, you know, I'm undocumented too. What can I do? Where can I go?

SIMS: What do you think is necessary in this country for either the DREAM Act or some comprehensive immigration reform to take place?

KASO: I think that it's definitely, as we've seen in the media recently, it's a bipartisan effort. And the constituent support is there. It's just no one's really stepping up to be heard before their politicians. And that's -- I think that's the most important thing that we can take away from this film. It's that your voice matters and your politicians aren't going to do what you want them to do unless you tell them, this is what I want and I need it done now.

SIMS: Good.

Alexandra Starr, who is an Emerson Fellow at the New American Foundation, the movement of people worldwide is probably the defining issue, I think, of the 21st century. Never before have we seen so many human beings moving across continents. Yet it seems as if we don't really understand that to immigrate, fully immigrate, these immigrants within societies really would define how humane we are and how democratic we are. What is your take on this DREAM Act and also why President Obama issued this executive order? Was that political because of the election? Was it in response to the opposition? How do you gauge that?

ALEXANDRA STARR: I think the Dreamers can take a tremendous amount of credit for what happened. You know, for a long time, I think immigration reform was discussed in very abstract terms and the Dreamers really put a human face on it.

You know, it's interesting. I think in a way is because a lot of them grew up in the United States and, as they said, unafraid -- undocumented and unafraid. Getting their stories out there really made people realize the human cost to the approach we were taking.

I'd also add, a couple of months before President Obama announced the so-called DACA proposal, Senator Marco Rubio put forth a plan of his own that would not have provided citizenship, but would have provided protection from deportation and work permits. I think that little bit of competition really got the White House's attention plus, yeah, there was an election coming up. There were obviously a number of factors in play, but really it's what you said. You know, the activism of these young people really did make -- you really can argue that that was the key difference.

SIMS: So what's your take on comprehensive immigration reform? Will it happen this year, next year, how soon can we expect it?

STARR: You know, I -- people who watch it very closely tell me that their feelings about it just go all over the place, from one day to the next. Obviously, it's going to pass the Senate by a wide margin, which is kind of extraordinary. I mean, given -- I've been covering this for a number of years. It's -- I mean, the change in tone is really remarkable. The thing is in the U.S. House, right, you have a big Republican constituency where, I think "National Journal" came out with some polling where a big chunk of the GOP representatives, 49 percent of their voters said that they would not vote for someone who provided a pathway to citizenship.

So I think that is sort of the sticking point. You know, I think there's pressure from a leadership within the GOP to start changing the tone of the party. You know, they saw, like, the ridiculous margins they lost the Latino vote by. And that's obviously a big and important growing demographic.

But then a lot of these guys want to win reelection, so what kind of leadership they're going to demonstrate, we'll have to see.

SIMS: What is it about the story, the narrative of these Dreamers? Is it the sort of innocence of them being brought to the country as children but yet being denied full access? Is that what is really compelling?

STARR: You know, yeah. I mean, actually -- you were at the original screening, right? OK. So Erika said -- the woman who was featured in the film -- she was like, I'm getting kind of sick of it, it's like no fault of my own. You know, it wasn't my parents' fault either that they're here. So she -- and to be honest with you, a lot of the Dreamers I've met in New York City actually crossed the border when they were teenagers. It's not just -- I think honestly, for me at least, it's this example of people who just want to do something with their lives. And it's been interesting for me to see people who apply for the Deferred Action program that President Obama built almost precisely a year ago, and how suddenly they can get on with their lives.

Like I've met all of these kids who dropped out of high school, going back for their GED and planning to apply for college, you know, people who all of a sudden, like were consigned to these off -- you know -- they had to take jobs where they were basically, you know, working for the minimum wage or less, you know, at these construction sites. And suddenly like their world breaks open. And this is short of citizenship, but it just -- it's remarkable to me how much their lives have changed by that one decision.

So I don't know, for me it just seems like -- one reason I think this film is so powerful, you just see like so many people who are in this cul-de-sac, and then there's suddenly a chance for them to move forward.

Actually, one thing I'd like to -- do you know how the other people who are featured in the film are doing?

KASO: I know how one of them is doing. Alejandro, he hasn't joined the Marines yet, but he is starting college in the fall and he's starting a special program through that.

STARR: Great. Where is he going to school?

KASO: Just Chicago, I don't know where.

STARR: Yeah, that's great.

SIMS: So this presidential order that took effect, it is still kind of tenuous because if a new administration comes in, this could really go out the window any day, right?

STARR: That's true. I mean, that's what -- what's interesting about this program to me, in part, is that I don't think it's been completely accurately portrayed in the press. It's kind of described as the DREAM Act and the Dreamers, but it's actually a lot more expansive than that. Under the DREAM Act, you had to have a high school diploma or GED, be working towards, you know, two years of college. When the regulations came out about a month later after he announced this program, it's actually open to anyone who enrolls in a GED program or is actually taking English classes to prepare for a GED program.

So an additional 350,000 young people were eligible. So what's -- and then, at the same time, you know, as I talk to attorneys who are representing these kids, they say they have a pretty like kind of a talking to with them, where they say, OK, enroll, do it, but don't think that that will be enough, because in two years you're going to have to reapply. And they're going to want to see some kind of progress.

So in a way, it's like this interesting social engineering program that's going forward. But yes, the fact is it's an executive order and if there is a new president and they don't share that same perspective, yeah, they could revoke it, which is why, as the film says, obviously like this is just the first step for this group, like they're obviously going to want comprehensive immigration reform to pass or at the very least the DREAM Act.

SIMS: So Ola, what does it feel like to grow up in this country and have these dreams and do all the right things and then not be able to actually fulfill them? We see the very tragic story of this guy who committed suicide. You know, there's a point that said what happens to a dream deferred? It explodes. What does that feel like and do you think that it is happening at this time to a specific demographic, meaning Latinos, as opposed to other immigrants and why?

KASO: It's very frustrating. I remember when I was in high school and all the doors were basically shut because I didn't have a Social Security number and it's so difficult to know that you worked four years, you know, and you want to go to the best school possible because you worked for it, but you can't because you don't have the Social Security number to put in the box, as Alejandro said.

I don't think that -- Latinos are definitely one of the major demographics that are affected by this. But there are Eastern Europeans. There are people from India, people from China who also suffer from this. And I've seen people from almost every country that have come to me and said, I don't know what to do, you know. I'm trying to apply for school, but I don't have a Social Security to apply for it. And it's really -- it's not only frustrating to go through it yourself, it's frustrating to not be able to help other people that are going through it, too.

SIMS: Is this a phenomenon that's only here in America or does it happen in other countries and how are they dealing with it? Do they have Dreamers to the extent that we have them?

STARR: No. I mean, in my -- so I can only speak to what I've -- where I've traveled and -- but I did a series on immigration in Europe. I think our situation, where we have such a large undocumented population, and also the fact that we grant birthright citizenship, really puts the United States in the unusual box or category, I would say. What is intriguing is to see countries like Germany and Austria -- I would put Holland in this category too, or the Netherlands, where they took a very like us versus them approach to immigration. They brought people over at guest workers. Those people were not going to be ever made citizens, you know. And then now -- but the approach -- the repercussions of that approach really are echoing in those societies three generations later.

And it -- something that I was impressed by in the Senate bill, when people talked about a guest worker program, I was just like, God, you know, I spent all this time in Europe and here I'm seeing -- you know -- I'm sure if you ask a lot of policymakers there, they're like, wow, we didn't expect this to happen. And it -- you know, decades on, they're really -- they're dealing with the consequences of this. But the Senate bill, you know, does provide potentially pathway to citizenship for guest workers. So it's like a very different kind of program.

SIMS: We're going to take some questions from the (term ?) members. And we should know that this session, like some others -- unlike some others, is actually on the record. And if you'd like to ask a question, please raise your hand, please identify yourself. And please ask a question instead of a comment. So who wants to go first? I think there're some microphones.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Megan Reilly Cayten with Catrinka. I have just a short question, which is the immigration bill that is before the Senate today, including the modifications that have been debated about border security and the rest of it, is there -- what is your view on whether if passed in its current state, what it would address and what it would -- what would remain outstanding in terms of what's really needed for comprehensive immigration reform.

STARR: Do you want to answer first or --

KASO: Oh, sure. I'll give you -- from the Dreamer perspective. So there is a wait period that's included in the -- in S.744, which is for Dreamers, you have to wait five years until you can apply for your green card and then apply to become a citizen. And so what that means is that for that period of time, you can't apply for jobs that require clearance. You can't apply to go to medical school. You can't apply to go to top-notch law schools. So again, that defers dreams for another five to seven years. And that part is very frustrating. And now that we have the border security provision where, you know, the RPIs still can't apply for citizenship or even a green card until the border is secure, then again, that's pushing it off even further.

And so now that five to seven years becomes 10.

So that's really frustrating from a Dreamer's perspective.

STARR: You know, I'll shill very quickly for Ted Alden at the Council on Foreign Relations, who with two senior former officials at the Department of Homeland Security put out a great report about -- basically describing how the department, you know, might issue all these contracts, but there's very little follow-up. And when I -- in terms of like the efficacy of how that money is being spent.

And to be honest, when I saw what is the latest figure, is it 40 billion (dollars) now, I mean, I really -- I hope that that report gets further disseminated because that just seems like such a recipe for -- I know we're on the record, so -- but yeah. I mean, that seems -- it's a great question and it does seem like in this legislative environment as well, there's been kind of -- that was a way to bring the vote total up. But the real consequences, particularly when our country -- you know, we don't have unlimited resources these days, the idea that particularly in the environment under which DHS already operates, that we would be expanding their budget so enormously and the questions about like existing oversight, I think those are good questions. They really need to be raised as the debate goes forward.

SIMS: Who else has a question? So I'm going to ask -- please, go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Charlie Prince.

SIMS: Who are you with?

QUESTIONER: Oh, I work at a law firm, Grubman Indursky & Shire -- not that interesting. But very much admire the messages in the film. I'm curious, really for any of you, do you think there're any substantive arguments for the opponents of whether it's the DREAM Act or the current legislation that need to be overcome or is it really what we see in the film as far as it's the kind of the darkest parts of our society?

SIMS: So are you referring to the economic argument of what it costs or --

QUESTIONER: The film -- I -- the film focuses on human interest stories and I think I said, I admire everything about the message in it, but doesn't really get into the substantive arguments, if there are any, from the opponents. And so I'd be just curious to see if from the viewpoints of people who are very knowledgeable about this what -- if you think there are any substantive arguments of if this really is essentially these kind of darker elements of the society that are preventing this from happening.

SIMS: Who wants to -- I mean, one of the biggest arguments is the economic -- the cost right?

STARR: Well, yes, I mean, this is my impression speaking with people. I think some -- I think there is this feeling of, you know, that we're a nation of laws. People break the law, they should not be, quote, "rewarded." That's something I've heard quite a bit as I've reported. There's also an argument made by some, like the Heritage Foundation, where they insist that as this broader group of people become U.S. citizens that they will absorb -- that they'll tax social programs. They'll be eligible for social programs over a long period of time. And they'll end up taxing that or -- honestly, you know -- but then you see CBO came out with that estimate where it would actually add billions of dollars to our economy.

You know, I honestly think it's just a very emotional issue. And again, that's kind of one reason I think these activists were so important because for so long, it was discussed in a very abstract term, this idea of like people coming over the border of like in schools or in -- you know -- hospitals, like over -- you know, this feeling of like overrun. You remember the ads that ran in California in 1992.

These young people were coming forward and telling their stories of, you know, just wanting to live productive lives here and really -- and how stymied they were in that. I think that was very powerful. And the fact is they also didn't shut up, right? Like they were told oftentimes like just -- but they just -- you know -- a lot of them felt like they didn't have anything to lose and they went for it. And they really did have an impact on our political system. It's impressive.

SIMS: Ola, do you want to respond to that/ Are there any legitimate, in your opinion, arguments in favor of not -- against the DREAM Act or in favor -- against comprehensive immigration reform?

KASO: Sure. So the economic aspect was -- after working in a senator's office, that was the number one issue that people raised. And not only does it add trillions of dollars to the economy, but the CBO also released a report saying that it would also increase workers' wages. And it's projected to increase workers' wages by 15 percent because you're diversifying the workforce. And I think that -- information like that is what needs to be released to the constituents. And everyone needs to know about stuff like that because there's a common misconception, this is going to hurt our economy. And based on pretty reliable studies, excluding the Heritage study, which was flawed actually mathematically in a lot of areas, but that's a different story. Yeah, this is something that's going to be beneficial to our society as a whole, economically and socially and just morally, too. It's common sense.

SIMS: Yes?

QUESTIONER: Marilyn Shocka (sp) from Scholastic. I was wondering actually what does the -- who does the DREAM Act actually apply to. So I come from a neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I would say that half of the people are illegal Polish immigrants and I know whole families that are illegal. And so I'm wondering, does the DREAM Act apply to kids of a certain age, so college age kids, kids going into grad school? And then also how does this apply to folks with, you know, H1B visas who, you know, actually are, you know, either graduate students or people who are actually applying to the workforce in a large way? So what are the actual parameters that this act applies to?

STARR: Do you want to go ahead?

KASO: OK. So it applies to people that are, I think, under the age of 30, right?

STARR: Right.

KASO: Under the age of 30 and --

STARR: Well, no, under the age of 31. You can be 30 and apply.

KASO: -- had to have been in the United States -- no, had to have entered the United States before the age of 15 --

STARR: I think 16 --

KASO: -- 16 --

(Laughter, cross talk.)

STARR: -- a quiz. Well, there're sort of two. So that's the age requirement that Ola was just talking about. And as I mentioned earlier, it's much more expansive than the DREAM Act in that you can be furthering your education in some way, as long as you show progress over the two-year period that can serve as a way in. Whereas the original DREAM Act was more demanding that way. You had to have a GED or a high school diploma.

What was -- I mean, within the Senate bill, it's kind of intriguing because that's in a way the most -- what's the word -- maybe "generous" isn't the word, but you know, the timeline, the five- year timeline is a lot quicker than what people had discussed earlier. And I also -- speaking to some attorneys, they said it's sort of the way it's written. It's slightly unclear as to whether there will be that two-year requirement of college or enrollment in the military. Currently, it's kind of -- and it'll come out in administration regulations subsequently. And under an Obama administration, they'd probably be more liberal. They wouldn't demand, you know, two years of college to qualify.

So yeah, I hope that answers your question.

SIMS: Please?

QUESTIONER: Excuse me, Graham Macmillan, Citi Foundation. Wondering where U.S. Chamber of Commerce comes out on this issue and the business community in terms of a voice of advocacy.

STARR: Would you like to -- I could -- OK. You know, this group, in particular, like has become -- I don't want to say the golden children, but it's -- I think the business community is strongly -- well -- they're not spending their resources, you know, lobbying for this particular aspect. But in a way, they don't need to.

What I have seen is that -- what's intriguing is how much the conversation has changed amongst this group, about this group in particular. I mean, when really conservative members of the House, like Eric Cantor, come out and say, well, I don't know about broader immigration reform, but we should do something about the DREAM Act kids, I mean, that is a huge change from just a year ago.

So my guess is -- I mean, who knows what will happen with comprehensive immigration reform, but it seems like the DREAM Act is going to pass in some form. That's my gut instinct. I know that Dreamers are very -- the Dreamers, and you know, they have a very influential organization lobbying. And they've said like we don't want to be broken off and said like, OK, we'll take care of this group and everyone else, you know, we'll deal with later or won't get relief.

But my impression is that if comprehensive immigration reform doesn't pass, this group, certainly something will pass for them.

QUESTIONER: Hi, good evening. Binta Brown. I'm going to break the protocol. Ola, you are incredible and I hope that you will never stop fighting for what you're fighting for. So my question is -- and this is related somewhat to Graham's question, I mean, he was asking about the business community. I'd like to ask a similar question from the perspective of the academic community.

What action have we seen by major colleges and universities to support students, to support DREAM legislation, particularly given the goal of universities to have diversity and to have a better allocation of talent, which we know, similar to the argument you're making, has tremendous benefits for economic growth potentially.

KASO: That's a great question. I attend the University of Michigan and I can tell you from personal experience that there hasn't been a lot of -- and this is a school that really values diversity and, you know, claims to thrive on it, and there really hasn't been much outreach to helping Dreamers or to pushing this legislation forward.

They have supported it, you know, publicly. However, I can't -- my university told me after my story was released to the media that I would go from paying in-state tuition to paying international tuition. And how you afford something like that when you can't even apply for private loans because you're not a U.S. citizen? And scholarships also don't apply to you because you're not a U.S. citizen.

So in a lot of states, schools are actually fighting against Dreamers as opposed to helping them and working with them to push this legislation forward.

STARR: Well, that's amazing to hear. I didn't know that -- can I ask you how then did you manage to pull together private resources or like --

KASO: I actually had private resources too that were taken away.

STARR: Wow. I can say that Arizona State University, whose president, Michael Crow, has been a real champion of Dreamers and has specifically fundraised to provide scholarships for people in this situation. I know he is a standout that way.

I've heard that on other campuses, oftentimes, it seems like within administrations sometimes there is conflict. I guess -- so I heard at UCLA there were some people who were real proponents and very helpful, and then there were questions about whether other people were as helpful.

QUESTIONER: Anish Melwani from McKinsey & Company. You talked about the delay that this -- even if this bill does get passed, the kinds of delays that'll have to happen. It also sounds like there is -- in this whole mess, there're sort of bureaucrats gone wild, right? So Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the mandate right now that if they know where a undocumented person is, they're supposed to go and, you know, do something about it.

The universities have policies that are in place that if you don't have this, that's why they have to take away things. Is there anything else that the administration or other entities -- state entities, cities, et cetera -- could do in the short term through things like executive orders or other powers that they have, that would help the situation?

STARR: You know, part of -- a lot of individual, like local communities have the power of the decision to enter into agreement, you know, where local law enforcement can start, so-called cooperating with ICE, they become kind of a filter where they can pull someone over for a traffic violation and then all of a sudden, they're on a bus to Mexico kind of thing. So individual communities do have a lot of discretion because once you enter into one of those partnerships, it's pretty obvious where it's going to go.

In terms of what could be done -- you're talking specifically to help this community? I mean, I don't -- that's a good question. You know, I think ultimately immigration is dealt with on the federal level. So like a couple of sessions ago, the legislature in Utah tried to create a guest worker program and that was struck down because -- so I think it really has to be dealt with on the national level. But those so-called partnerships between local police officers and ICE have -- you know, they came in -- I think it was in 2006 that they first came on board, and that was one of the reasons the deportation rate just skyrocketed over the past couple of years.

SIMS: So we have time for just one more question. I guess we'll take this gentleman in the back.

QUESTIONER: Andrew Klaber from Paulson & Company. Similar to Binta's question, I think there are three test cases going through the appellate: Cesar Vargas in New York, a test case in Florida, and a test case in California of a law student who graduated from a law school, passed the Bar and is not sanctioned to practice the law. I was wondering what the status of these cases might be and if there are any similar analogies to the medical profession.

KASO: So I actually don't know the answer to this.

STARR: Neither do I. Actually, one thing that I had seen recently was that -- wasn't there a medical school that accepted an undocumented student? So it seems like there's some pushback, but one of the reasons they don't -- theoretically they don't do that is because of the match, right? When you go to residency, they argue they don't want to accept someone and then not be able to place them. But that would be interesting if the DREAM -- you know, if something passes, whether more universities would provide opportunities, right, to just sort of -- and you know, and say we'll work this out. We know that soon you will have citizenship, so why wait? You know, we'll work with you on it. Is that sort of the hope will happen?

KASO: That's a great point that you bring up. I haven't heard it yet, but it is a great point. (Laughs.)

SIMS: There's been in the dialogue two different terms that have been used almost interchangeably. One is "undocumented" and one is "illegal." And before we end the evening, I'm just wondering if either of you would like to talk about the use of those terms. And you mentioned that it's the illegality that often traps people when it comes to this debate over immigration.

I remember, in my family, one Thanksgiving, we had a huge debate over this whole issue of illegality. And it was my very wise grandmother, who stopped the debate by saying, you know, in this whole system of legality, we're picking on the ones who are at the bottom.

And everything we're eating at this table, the turkey, the vegetables -- these were picked by people who are considered to be illegal and yet we bought them and we consume them. So where do we stand in this whole debate? But I thought maybe at the end if either of you would like to talk about this whole issue of illegality and whether or not that really merits that term for undocumented people.

KASO: There're a lot of aspects to look at when examining this issue. And one particular one that I would like to bring up that I think that is a really important issue to look at is that 40 percent of the people that we're labeling as illegal did not enter the United States illegally. They merely overstayed their visa. So again, there's that misconception that everyone just crossed the border illegally that is undocumented presently. And that's not really the case because 40 percent of these individuals actually just overstayed a visa.

And another issue to look at is, for example, my family came here legally, applied -- you know, did all the legal steps and at no point in time were we illegal because we still followed up with our, you know, deportation officer and again, we're also being put in the group of illegal immigrants. So I think that we really need to take a step back and really examine this pool of people and look at the word "undocumented" versus the word "illegal."

SIMS: Alexandra.

STARR: You know, it's something that I come across a lot as a journalist. So you used to work at the "New York Times," Calvin. Did you see Julia Preston's --

SIMS: I did.

STARR: Yeah, amusing. But I think -- I think within the media oftentimes, it becomes a little bit of a -- it becomes a little bit of a way to protect themselves from being said, oh, you're being soft on immigration. If they put illegal -- I mean, this isn't a good reason to do it, but I kind of sense that oftentimes, like they get nervous about being accused of having a certain bias.

But you know, phrasing really matters and I -- it's something that we should be aware of. And it's not just the fact that as you said, like technically, some people came and overstayed the visa, just to label someone as an illegal alien in particular, I mean that's -- that's pretty -- that's (censorious ?), you know, in that phrase. And I -- you know -- all the kids were saying I'm undocumented, right. They're not saying I was illegal.

SIMS: Well, the "Los Angeles Times" Stylebook was changed 15 years ago because they determined that -- and this varies by news organization, but that a person inherently could not be illegal if they exist. So -- anyway, Alexandra, Ola, thank you very much. This is a very good discussion. Thank you for coming. (Applause.)

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