by EILEEN FILLER-CORN, Speaker, Virginia House of Delegates, and JOUSSELL LOPEZ, For the Sun Gazette
Joussell Lopez shares a lived experience with millions of immigrants in the U.S. who have found roadblocks instead of green lights.
His story illustrates the importance of providing immigrants with a clearer path to citizenship, access to higher education, and the ability to achieve the American Dream.
“Estudia para que tengas una mejor vida que nosotros.” Joussell first heard these words from his father as a 13-year-old boy on the border between Mexico and Texas after having been released by U.S. Border Patrol. He was on a quest to reunite with his parents, who already were in the U.S. after fleeing civil war and poverty in Nicaragua.
Joussell became the first person in his family to receive a high-school diploma, but when he enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, he almost had to quit several times because he had to pay out-of-state tuition – a cruel and almost overwhelming burden faced by many DREAMer students like Joussell, who, in many cases, know no other home and were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own.
To this day, he thinks about what his father said to him that day when he first stepped foot on U.S. soil. The translation is, “Study so you can have a better life than ours.” It is this axiom that informs his every step, in a country where despite working numerous jobs and long hours, paying taxes and receiving public education for more than a decade, he still cannot call himself a U.S. citizen, and is treated unfairly based on decisions made in his childhood that were out of his control.
When Joussell reached out to the office of Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington-Fairfax) to advocate on behalf of the Virginia Dream Act, the Equity in Financial Aid Actand the entire Virginia Dreamers Agenda, Del. Lopez says he saw a familiar face (although they are not related).
Alfonso often says that the parallels between Joussell’s story and his father’s are striking. Del. Lopez’s father came to the U.S. from Venezuela with nothing but $260 in his pocket and the dream of better life. He worked as a busboy and waiter. He learned English. He graduated from Northern Virginia Community College when his son was 5 years old and then took one class a semester every year until he graduated from George Mason University, one month before Del. Lopez graduated from high school.
Delegate Lopez has stated, “My father’s determination and hard work inspired me to choose a path of public service and use this platform to advocate for immigrants and equitable access to higher education for undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. These amazing children are the future of our nation. They are valedictorians and class presidents. They should not be denied an opportunity for an education because of decisions made by their parents or the strictures of a broken federal immigration system.”
Although Joussell’s and Alfonso’s father’s stories are generations apart, they are not unique. Undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families across the country have had to delay or forgo a college education because of antiquated immigration laws. Many of these individuals pay taxes, work multiple jobs and benefit from American public education, but they are not afforded the same access to a college degree.
Now, the Virginia has become one of 18 states that provides hardworking immigrants with this path to the American Dream: no longer will some students have to carry the weight of balancing multiple jobs to pay for out-of-state tuition, and no longer will they be denied financial-aid eligibility.
With the passage of the “American Dream and Promise Act” in the U.S. House of Representatives, it is imperative that the U.S. Senate also acts to provide DREAMer students with a pathway to citizenship. The gift of liberty and the promise of a good education are the tenets of a country built by immigration.
More importantly, states do not need to wait for Congress to finally pass a comprehensive immigration reform package. Instead, it is imperative that other states pass sensible legislation like Delegate Lopez’s Virginia Dream Act and the Equity in Financial Aid Act (both now enacted into law).
Such reforms provide immigrants with the tools to build a better life, and it lets states and localities continue to invest in a modern workforce of economic mobility and innovation, one that ensures the American Dream remains a reality.