Students at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling got the opportunity last week to share their ideas about immigration with a man who can make a difference: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Durbin was to speak and listen. He discussed his work with the DREAM Act and how he became involved in immigration policy.
In turn, students told him about the ideas they have developed during a yearlong study of immigration. A districtwide study of immigration this year included holding a mock Ellis Island event and, for older students, a study of current policies.
"They contacted area politicians, wrote them proposals and asked them what they think. Some of these politicians actually responded," said London Middle School Principal James Parker. These responses led to the presentation of those proposals to local, state and national lawmakers in April.
Wednesday's student forum was a smaller conversation. Durbin was not able to attend the April presentations, and Greg Bales, a suburban outreach coordinator for Durbin, attended in his place. This time, the students had a chance to share their opinions with the DREAM Act sponsor himself.
Durbin began by talking about what the DREAM Act would mean to young immigrants. He also told stories of people who sought his assistance in applying for citizenship, many hoping to continue their education.
"Durbin talked about a Korean woman who came to him for advice on how to gain citizenship, and he had to tell her that she needed to move back to Korea for 10 years before she could apply," Parker said.
District 21 covers many diverse communities, and many of its students are immigrants themselves or children of immigrants, so the stories they heard were close to home. Teachers here have taught students about immigration policy for 13 years.
"I think that immigration issues are very real to them," Parker said.
The forum, in which roughly 100 students participated, was another step in educating students on how immigration affects their future, and for students to educate the public about their own experiences.
A couple of the students told their own stories, including a young girl who was born in Ukraine and brought to the U.S. A young boy spoke about how his great-grandmother was an immigrant.
"This was a chance for students to tell their story," said Parker.
Each group focused on a specific issue, such as undocumented workers, the DREAM Act and why it should pass, new regulations for the pathway to citizenship, and the possibility of creating an Ellis Island-type facility in the Southwest near the Rio Grande.
After each speaker, Durbin responded to their inquiries, stories and proposals. The Southwest Ellis Island idea interested the senator and he remarked that he'd take it with him back to Congress.
The last moments of the forum were open to questions and answers with Durbin, who is the Assistant Majority Leader, the second highest-ranking position in the Senate.
"I think he is a good person to understand the issues, as Illinois has a large amount of undocumented workers. I think the senator can make us see the value that this issue has, and can help bring some people out of the shadows," said Parker.
Durbin's work resonates with many of the students participating, as some have plans to attend college but are not eligible for loans and grants, according to Parker.
"Some of these kids are asking about the DREAM Act because they know it can apply to them," the principal said. "They are starting to understand these issues. We have bright and talented kids that are willing to make contributions to their community and to their country."
Parker hopes that by having children get involved in learning about how policy is made, and grasping a better understanding of how current laws affect their lives, they will continue to pay attention to what happens in Washington.
"By having the senator here, it inspires the kids to get involved. Even if you're a kid, you can still have a voice," said Parker.