CHICAGO - In a packed auditorium here at the Benito Juarez high school in the predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood, hundreds of elected officials, students, community leaders and immigrant rights supporters watched as Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois DREAM Act into law.
Quinn, a Democrat, said signing the landmark measure represents a historic and special day for Illinoisans.
"Today we are showing what democracy is all about. We say to all the people in our country and in our state that we want everyone in and nobody out," said Quinn. "All children have the right to a first-class education. The Illinois DREAM Act creates more opportunities for the children of immigrants to achieve fulfilling careers, brighter futures, and better lives through higher education."
The measure establishes a privately funded Illinois DREAM Fund, administered by a volunteer state commission, to make scholarships available to children of immigrants that graduate from Illinois high schools. Unlike the national Dream Act, which did not become law, however, it does not provide a pathway to legalization for students born outside the United States.
It also enables high school counselors and college admissions officers to be fully informed regarding educational opportunities for immigrant youth. The measure will impose no costs to Illinois taxpayers.
Pablo Alvarez, 17, is a Chicago high school student and came to the U.S. with his parents from Mexico when he was 11-years old. He said the Illinois DREAM Act means a lot to young people like him and especially his parents.
"This is the beginning of a dream the whole nation has been waiting for. It's also an opportunity to achieve the dreams of my parents," said Alvarez.
Alvarez notes he's a straight A student in school and hopes to study political science in college.
"Immigrant youth deserve the same rights as others and our voice needs to be heard. I don't understand how a social security number should get in the way of achieving my education. And it makes me angry that some people think we are just criminals," he said.
Alvarez said Congress should work together to pass the federal DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. He said national lawmakers should "stop limiting our rights in the pursuit of happiness and let this country finally become the land of opportunity for all."
After the federal DREAM Act failed in Congress last year, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights , along with the Chicago based Immigrant Youth Justice League, community organizations and allies, mobilized broad support from religious and elected officials, university presidents and others to pass the Illinois DREAM Act. The coalition, with the support of Quinn, won passage of the bill in both houses of the General Assembly in May with bi-partisan support.
Present at the signing was a key sponsor of the bill, Democratic State Rep. Edward Acevedo who called it civil rights legislation.
"The key to advancement is education," said Acevedo. "The immigrants built this country and they continue to build it. If you live here and are an immigrant your country depends on you."
Ariana Salgado, an undocumented youth activist also addressed the crowd.
"As undocumented students we helped put our state at the forefront in recognizing and respecting the many contributions of the immigrant youth community," she said. "This is our moment to continue to fight for our dreams and aspirations. The fight doesn't stop here," she declared emphasizing the need for federal immigration reform. "We cannot stand aside while our families continue to be separated everyday."
Activists say the Illinois DREAM Act is a major step forward for immigrant rights and a symbolic alternative to many of the anti-immigrant laws being passed in states throughout the nation. Many hope other states will follow suit and learn from the bipartisan effort Illinois made and won with the Illinois DREAM Act. But the job is not done, immigrant rights activists say, and immigrant rights supporters are increasing their efforts to secure passage of both the federal DREAM Act and broader immigration reform.
Previously, Gov. Quinn has made Illinois the first state in the nation to opt-out of the controversial federal immigration program known as Secure Communities.
Zulema Mijangos, 19, came to the U.S. with her parents from Mexico when she was six-years-old. She notes the measure is a big step in the right direction for immigrant youth and immigrant communities. She said her parents left Mexico seeking work in the U.S. to better provide for her family.
"They came here to lead a better life for their children," she said. "We just want to work and contribute to our communities," said Mijangos. "As undocumented youth we can't give up. We're not alone and we need to stick together and stay united. The struggle may be difficult but our goals are not impossible."
Photo: Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn signs the Illinois DREAM Act into law August 1, in Chicago. Pepe Lozano/PW.