Eastern Connecticut ‘Dreamers’ Navigate Life After Graduation, and Politics of Immigration

TheDream.US Co-Founder Donald Graham addresses Eastern's first class of Opportunity and National Scholars (Courtesy of ECSU)


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Editor’s note: the subject of this story has requested anonymity as a condition for speaking on the record. His name has been changed to protect his identity.

As a child, Patrick arrived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

Without the chance to qualify for financial aid or most merit scholarships in his home state, he grew up knowing that attending college was likely impossible. 

But everything changed in 2016 when he received a scholarship from TheDream.US, a private program that has provided scholarships to more than 3,000 students to attend one of more than 70 partnering colleges.

“TheDream.US has given me the hope and courage to become anything that I want to be in life,” he said.

One year ago, Patrick graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University. This past fall, he started law school at Columbia University. 

“Today, I am positioned in a graduate school space that was never designed for a Black, undocumented man,” he said. “I no longer see myself as a Dreamer. Today, I am a doer.”

Patrick is one of 42 out-of-state students to graduate from Eastern Connecticut State University in the first group of students fully-funded by TheDream.US — a privately-funded scholarship supporting students either eligible for Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals status, called DACA for short, who have Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or have lived in the United States for more than five continuous years and otherwise meet the requirements for DACA. 

“It gave me the opportunity to do something I love, and be someone my siblings can look up to and realize they can do it too,” said another recent graduate of Eastern funded by TheDream.US. “Being the oldest and only college graduate in my family, I’ve been able to encourage not only my siblings but also the rest of my family to pursue more and never settle for anything less than what they aspire to be/do. It’s also given me a position to be able to financially help my family, especially during the pandemic.”

Currently, 203 students at Eastern are fully funded through the scholarship and 4 percent of the student body at the public university are undocumented immigrants.  

The “Dreamers’ class of 2020 graduated from the university with a combined GPA of 3.8.

To date, 64 percent of the 102 fully-funded, out-of-state graduates at Eastern in 2020 and 2021 are either employed or in graduate school. Several have started their own business or are working as independent contractors given that without legal status they are unable to seek employment at most companies.

Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US.,  said the hope at TheDream.US is that someday soon all of these individuals will be eligible for citizenship and able to work just like any other resident. 

“Our end goal is that our scholars can climb the economic ladder and be successful in this country they have called home for most of their lives,” said Marshall. “When we started, our first thought was just getting the access for these students, then it was success in college and now we are focused on career success and making sure that they are having meaningful opportunities to get strong first jobs.” 

The American Dream and Promise Act

In 2013, when TheDream.US first started funding undocumented immigrants’ college tuition, they only expected to enroll two or three cohorts. 

“When we started it looked like Congress would pass The Dream Act and these students would have access to Pell Grants and other forms of aid to attend schools,” Marshall said. “When that didn’t happen and President Trump took office we went back to raising additional funds. 

On President Joe Biden’s first day in office he reinstated DACA by executive order, allowing eligible individuals the opportunity to apply yet again to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the United States.

And with the American Dream and Promise Act before Congress, the organization finds itself in the same situation they were at their start.

The legislation is currently under review in the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. If passed, it would grant permanent resident status to anyone who entered as a child, under the age of 18, before January 1, 2021.

The law would provide legal protection and potential permanent status to 2.3 million current DACA holders and DACA-eligible individuals, and additional 400,000 individuals with TPS and 170,000 children of temporary workers. 

Whether DACA is even legal or constitutional remains unresolved, however.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether President Barack Obama had the authority to create the program by executive order. That case is currently in front of a federal court in Texas.

And for the American Dream and Promise Act to become law, it will likely need the support of both parties in Congress, which at this point appears unlikely. 

“If we find that the Dream Act is not passed we would go back to fundraising and enrolling more students in our program,” Marshall said.