photo: Jay Premack - Students gathered in Washington in July to call for the passage of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
By Michael Sewall - The Chronicle of Higher Education - chronicle.com
August 15, 2010- Washington - The renewed cry for comprehensive immigration reform has ignited an increasingly vocal and visible student push for legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for thousands of undocumented immigrants who attend college.
Known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the Dream Act, the measure is designed to help people who were brought illegally to the United States as children and who have often attended elementary and secondary schools here. A Supreme Court decision requires public schools to enroll students regardless of immigration status, but the ruling does not apply to colleges, and states have varying policies about whether undocumented immigrants can enroll in college, pay in-state tuition, or be eligible for any state aid.
The Dream Act is seen by its advocates as the solution to many barriers facing illegal immigrants who want to enroll in college and go on to well-paying jobs and productive lives in the United States. A report released last month by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, estimated that 726,000 immigrants would be immediately eligible for conditional legal status, based on the Dream Act's requirements, with the opportunity to achieve permanent legal status if they meet other provisions.
But the report also said that many more of the bill's potential beneficiaries would never actually achieve permanent legal status. Of the 2.1 million immigrants estimated to meet the Dream Act's general requirements, only about 38 percent were likely to achieve permanent legal status, according to the report, which was written by Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at the institute, and Margie McHugh, co-director of the institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.
"The estimate is a little disappointing," said Felipe Matos, a 24-year-old undocumented student at St. Thomas University and an advocate of the legislation. "But there are way more barriers to education now than there would be if the Dream Act passed."
A Path to Legal Status
The Dream Act would allow immigrants to apply for conditional legal status if, upon enactment of the law, they are younger than 35, arrived in the country before the age of 16, have lived in the United States for at least the previous five years, and earned a high-school degree or GED. If, after six years, they have completed at least two years of college or military service, they will be granted permanent legal status.
The legislation would continue to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving federal Pell Grants, but it would allow them to receive money through the federal work-study program and to take out federally subsidized student loans, aid for which these immigrants are now ineligible. And the Dream Act would make it clear that states could choose to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. Ten states already offer those lower rates to anyone, including undocumented immigrants, who graduated from a state high school. But some of those states have faced legal challenges to those policies, and other states have been reluctant to consider them because of provisions in a 1996 federal immigration law that some say were meant to preclude in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Opponents of the proposed measure say it would be unfair for undocumented students to be given aid when they broke the law and that it would encourage others to come to the United States illegally.
"This is an amnesty plan disguised as an educational initiative," said Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group seeking stricter immigration enforcement. "Graduation used to come with a diploma, a cap, and a gown, but now it could come with a green card."
Mr. Dane also said he was concerned that it would be difficult to oversee the Dream Act and certify such things as the age at which people entered the United States.
Immigrant-rights activists, on the other hand, say that the students who would benefit from the Dream Act often didn't choose to come to the United States and that making it easier for them to get a college education would allow them to better contribute to the work force.
The Wait to Use a Degree
About 114,000 undocumented students who already have college degrees would have the easiest pathway to permanent legal status, the report said. They would simply wait through six years of conditional status and maintain "good moral character."
Many of these college graduates can't use their degrees because of their illegal status and are instead working at low-paying jobs, such as at restaurants or as baby sitters.
Mr. Matos came to the United States from Brazil when he was 14 and has been unable to realize his goal of becoming a teacher, in part, because he couldn't get a teacher-study internship without a Social Security number. Instead, he has become a national student leader on immigrant rights, having organized rallies and campaigns to support undocumented students.
"I wasn't able to pursue my dream because I don't have a Social Security number," said Mr. Matos, who earned an associate degree in international relations at Miami Dade College and is now studying business administration at St. Thomas University. "But I have a real passion for education. It's the only way out of poverty, and I want to be able to contribute to what I believe."
Barriers to Education
More than 1.5 million of the potential Dream Act beneficiaries would need to continue their educations or join the military to gain legal status.
About 900,000 members of this group are undocumented children under 18, and about 600,000 are undocumented immigrants who meet the Dream Act's age requirement and have high-school diplomas or GED's but haven't completed the two years of college or military service required to receive permanent legal status.
People in this group face a number of obstacles, the policy institute's report said. Many who want to pursue a college education may struggle to do so because of limited time, money, and English-language skills.
"The opportunity to obtain legal status is a huge motivational factor, but the institutional barriers are still there," Ms. Batalova said.
Considering these barriers, as well as trends of military enlistment and college-completion rates for legal immigrants, the authors of the report concluded that about 47 percent of this group would finish at least two years of higher education or military service. Ms. Batalova said these projections could be seen as a worst-case scenario.
Almost three-quarters of the 600,000 undocumented immigrants with high-school diplomas or GED's are working part or full time, and about 30 percent are parents. Thirty-five percent have limited English proficiency.
The cost of education could be the biggest obstacle for undocumented students. Nearly half of those immigrants with a high-school degree or its equivalent are in families whose annual incomes are less than about $44,000 for a family of four. Sixty-five percent of undocumented children live in families below that income level, making the cost of college "beyond the means of many," according to the report.
Children under 18 make up the largest group of potential Dream Act beneficiaries, numbering about 934,000.
Access to intervention and guidance from teachers and counselors would help this group achieve greater educational success and become eligible for legal status under the Dream Act, Ms. Batalova said. Large numbers of Hispanic students do not finish high school, with one in five dropping out. That compares with one in 20 white students who don't finish. Advocates of the Dream Act say that providing the incentive of legal status could give many undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States more of a reason to stay in school.
Hilda, a high-school senior in Georgia, wants to attend the University of Georgia, but because she is an undocumented immigrant, state law requires her to pay the out-of-state tuition rate. That amount is almost $38,000 a year, including room and board, compared with about half that for in-state students. Hilda asked that her last name not be used because of her immigration status.
Hilda, who came to the United States from Brazil when she was 9, said she knew other undocumented immigrants like her who graduated from her high school but couldn't continue their educations, and she wanted to avoid that fate. Her father works in construction, and her mother cleans houses. Hilda has been working with her high-school counselor to discuss her options to pay for college, including looking into any available scholarships or finding a supporter to co-sign on a loan.
The Dream Act would open up new opportunities for her, she said, even if costs were still high. "It'd be a weight lifted off my shoulders to know I can go on and be able to give back to a country that's really been home to me."
Far to Go
Facing the biggest uphill battle to legal status would be 18- to 34-year-old undocumented immigrants who do not have a high-school degree. Of the 490,000 potential Dream Act beneficiaries in this group, the policy institute's report estimates that 96 percent would not progress to permanent legal status.
These immigrants would have to finish a high-school education and then fulfill the two years of college or military requirements after that, and they face the same time, money, and language barriers as other groups.
Some community colleges, according to the report, are working to speed the transition of less-educated individuals into college courses in ways that could aid people in this group. By helping students find the quickest way to obtain a GED while also getting credit for some college courses, colleges could give these immigrants a better chance of fulfilling the Dream Act's requirements within the six-year time limit.
Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, is among the college presidents who have called for passage of the Dream Act, in part, to help undocumented students with financial obstacles get to college.
"They have to pay such high out-of-state tuition, and without access to financial aid, their dreams are dashed," Mr. Templin said in a conference call with other college leaders in July. "These people who have done everything we've asked of them now don't have futures."
An Interim Step
College leaders, student activists, and others want Congress to take action on the Dream Act separately from a broader immigration bill, which could be difficult to pass in an election year.
Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada, the majority leader, recently said he would consider taking up the Dream Act as a separate bill this year but that he doesn't have the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. There are 40 cosponsors of the legislation in the Senate and 128 in the House.
In the meantime, some immigrant-rights and higher-education groups have urged the federal government to keep undocumented students who would receive Dream Act benefits from being deported. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and a co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, asked the Department of Homeland Security to halt deportations of such students. Homeland Security hasn't changed its policy, but it has been focusing deportation efforts on convicted criminals and sparing students.
Hundreds of undocumented students marched on Capitol Hill last month to show support for the Dream Act, including by holding a mock graduation ceremony for immigrants and participating in sit-ins at offices of various senators.
Mr. Matos—who has led a number of rallies and campaigns, including a walk with a group of undocumented students from Miami to Washington in January to raise awareness about their plight—said he has seen momentum for the Dream Act building.
"It's been beautiful," Mr. Matos said of the activism. "When we started walking back in January, people weren't talking about it. Little by little, the activism picked up across the country, and I expect that this is going to continue."