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Dreaming Local

Guillermo Linares (Ed.D., '05) is leading the fight to make undocumented immigrant students eligible for state financial aid
Guillermo Linares (Ed. D., ’05) is leading the fight to make undocumented immigrant students eligible for state financial aid

By Siddhartha Mitter

On Sherman Avenue, just off of West 207th Street in Inwood, staff members in the district office of State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares (Ed.D., ‘05) greet constituents who drop by with a polite “Como está ustéd?”

“I’m trying to make myself Mr. Immigrant in the state Legislature,” says Linares, who represents the northernmost part of Manhattan.

That goal might seem obvious for New York City’s former Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, but Linares nowadays is training his sights on a very specific goal: passage of the proposed New York State Dream Act, for which he is the lead sponsor in the Assembly.

“The Dream Act is the most important piece of legislation for me,” says Linares, who spoke at TC this past spring, along with the Act's co-sponsor, New York State Senator Bill Perkins, in a panel titled The New York State DREAM Act: Educational Equity for Undocumented New Yorkers." (Watch the videotape of the event below.) In the version under consideration in New York State, the measure would make undocumented immigrant students eligible for state financial aid for higher education.

NYS DREAM Act: Educational Equity for Undocumented New Yorkers

It’s one of a family of Dream Acts under consideration by individual state legislatures while the proposed federal Dream Act – which would grant conditional permanent residency to qualifying undocumented youth while they pursue higher education -- remains stalled after a decade of defeats in Congress.

New York is one of 13 states that let eligible undocumented youth attend state universities at in-state tuition rates. But only three states—Texas, California and New Mexico—grant them access to state financial aid. The measure championed by Linares and his partner in the State Senate, Sen. Bill Perkins, would make New York the fourth.

“We need to have a financial commitment by the state to the students; otherwise, it’s meaningless,” Linares says.

With 60 co-sponsors in the 150-member State Assembly, 27 co-sponsors in the 62-member State Senate, and a cast of supporters that includes the State Board of Regents, the SUNY trustees and CUNY chancellor, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the private-sector Partnership for New York City, momentum appears to be building for the measure to pass. Still, Linares says a key missing element is the kind of support from Governor Andrew Cuomo that led to last year’s legislative victory for marriage equality.

The economic case for the Dream Act is open-and-shut, in Linares’ view. College graduates earn $25,000 more per year than workers who hold only a high school diploma, he says, and contribute about $4,000 more in annual taxes. Meanwhile, passage of the bill would cost just $17 million in funds added to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

The cost of not passing the measure is harder to quantify, Linares says, but failure would be devastating by any measure.

“You’ve invested hundreds of thousands with every child that has managed to get to 12th grade, and that’s going by the wayside,” he says. “You’re taking that investment and saying, you know what, since the federal level has failed to create a path to citizenship for these young people, we might as well throw in the towel.”

Linares came to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1966, joining his parents, who had achieved residency status through the 1965 immigration reform.

The oldest of nine children, he landed in the East Tremont section of the Bronx at age 14, fresh from his grandparents’ farm and speaking no English.

“It was sink or swim,” Linares says. “The most challenging years of my life were to go through high school attempting to compete with other students with little-to-no support. I never felt so incompetent or so worthless.”

When he graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School—with a general degree, he notes, not an academic one—his guidance counselor was less than encouraging.

“He said listen, college is not for everybody. And he was so convincing that I said, I think he’s right,” Linares says. At the time, Linares was working at a supermarket. Instead of going to college, he figured, he could work full-time. “Maybe become manager,” he says.

But his parents would hear none of it. “They said that I should prepare to go back to the farm unless I understood that, being the eldest, I had to enter college.”

Linares managed to enroll at City College—“by a miracle,” he says. There, he became more comfortable expressing himself in English. He also connected with Puerto Rican and Dominican activists and the broader civil rights and student movements under way.

After college, Linares worked as a bilingual teacher at an elementary school in Washington Heights, where the crowded classrooms were full of kids who reminded him of himself, “all newly arrived, fresh off the plane.”

In 1979 he founded the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans (the Spanish acronym is ACDP) to organize neighborhood families to access social services and push—successfully—for new schools.

Along the way he earned two master’s degrees, one from City College, in bilingual education, and the other from Fordham, in school administration and supervision.

Linares first took classes at Teachers College in the mid-1980s, while working for a TC-based program training bilingual education teachers. In 2003, after a long interruption to serve on the City Council, he returned to TC to pursue a doctorate. Midway through, he received a personal call from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asking him to serve as Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. He accepted, but only after receiving assurance that there would be time to finish his dissertation.

Ofelia García, a former TC faculty member who served on Linares’ dissertation committee, says Linares influenced her own work and activism on bilingual education.

“Guillermo and his wife Evelyn were instrumental in a lot that happened at the beginning,” says García, who now teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. “That was the beginning of all the advocacy for Dominican students in Washington Heights. He’s been a role model, a trailblazer.”

When he finally received his TC degree, Linares says, he thought of two people: the guidance counselor who told him high school was the end of the road; and his late mother, who insisted it wasn’t.

Passing the state Dream Act, he says, will open the road to higher education for a new class of young people who are currently excluded from state tuition assistance. In his view, it’s the least the state can do in the absence of movement on the federal front.

“Economically, it makes perfect sense,” he says. “The private sector understands it; people who see history, who know what different waves of immigration have brought, understand it. The failing has been at the federal level in terms of looking long-term.”

Recently Linares announced that he is running, this year, for the State Senate seat being vacated by Adriano Espaillat, who is running for Congress. Linares says he hopes the Dream Act will have passed by then, but if it has not, the State Senate, where it has had more trouble gaining support up to now, is where he believes he can make a difference.

“I think I have a pretty good shot,” he says. But should he find himself out of a job in the state legislature come November, he promises to keep pushing the Dream Act. “From wherever I am,” he says, “I will be rallying all the forces I can muster to make this dream a reality.”

Published Monday, Jul. 2, 2012