Legislation passed in the U.S. House last week to provide a path to citizenship for “Dreamer” immigrants deserves attention and a vote in the Senate, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch said on a visit home last week.
At a news conference at the University of Vermont last Friday, Welch discussed the Dream and Promise Act which aims to put undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minor children on a path to U.S. citizenship. Welch touted “Dreamers” and their contributions to Vermont and the nation.
The “Dreamer” bill passed the House 237-187, with mostly Democrats and seven Republican members in favor. It now goes to the Senate where Welch said he hopes majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. will steer it to a vote.
At Welch’s side on Friday stood Juan Conde, a “Dreamer” and student at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine. Two years from becoming a doctor, Conde said he hopes to specialize in oncology and work on a cure for cancer, a focus stemming from his late mother’s battle with cancer.
Conde said he moved to Texas from Mexico with his mother when he was only 9, and against steep odds, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. That paved the way for him to be accepted into medical school.
One of the main reasons that Conde said he chose UVM was because he felt as if Vermont was a safe and welcoming place.
“I feel like this school really embraces DACA students,” Conde said, using the acronym for earlier “Dreamer” legislation, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Although Conde said he does feel safe, the obstacles that DACA residents and students face are still prevalent in his life. For Conde and many other students, one of the biggest struggles is paying for college.
“We are able to work, we are able to drive, but we don’t have access to grants or loans,” Conde said.
According to Marie Johnson, UVM director of student financial services, DACA students do not qualify for federal or state financial aid unless they have a Social Security number. They do qualify for university grants and scholarships, she said.
Conde explained that making ends meet is difficult with little access to private loans and navigating a medical school schedule that leaves little time for a job.
UVM President Tom Sullivan also addressed Friday’s news conference. When asked whether DACA students qualify for financial aid, Sullivan referred to it as an “open question.” However, he added that the university can help students in those circumstances in other formal ways.
“At the University of Vermont, it has been and will continue to be our practice to protect undocumented students to the maximum extent under federal law,” Sullivan said. “Federal law does not require the university to track undocumented students, and in fact, the university does not collect or maintain any records regarding whether students are undocumented immigrants or not.”
The university does not disclose any information about students unless directed so by a subpoena issued by a federal court, Sullivan added.
Although there are no programs tailored for “Dreamers” in particular, Sullivan said DACA students have access to all of the services that other students have.
“All the way from legal advice to counseling, anything we can do to contribute to their success and safety is our obligation,” Sullivan said.
Welch said he does not know whether McConnell will bring the legislation up for a Senate vote. “America wants it, our citizens want it, Republicans – when I talk to them privately – want it, so it is up to Senator McConnell if he will let us have it,” Welch said.
Welch said he believes that the issue of DACA is separate from other immigration issues. He said he disagrees with policy that punishes children for actions their parents took.
“If a child is brought over by a parent, that child is not responsible for the decision that the parent made,” Welch said. “Why do we have a policy that punishes an innocent person?”
Welch’s visit to Burlington Friday also included a luncheon address to the Vermont Association for Justice and a visit to electronics manufacturer Dynapower, both in South Burlington.
Luke Zarzecki is a reporter with Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.