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Dream big or go ‘home’

Students risk deportation to support controversial bill

Protesters march for passage of the DREAM act, which would legalize many immigrant students brought to the U.S. illegally as children, in Union Square in New York on May 1, 2007. Photo: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Walter Lara graduated with honors from community college in Miami. One morning in February 2009, the 23-year-old was detained by immigration authorities on his way to work and slated to be deported to Argentina, a country he had left with his mother when he was three years old. Once deported, he would be subject to a 10-year ban on obtaining a visa and returning to the U.S. After a youth-led campaign that resulted in senators writing letters on his behalf, Lara was granted a stay until this July. But without the passage of the DREAM Act, he lacks any possibility to gain citizenship.

The Lara case became a linchpin in the renewed case for immigration reform, one that is increasingly being headed by immigrant students nationwide. First introduced in Congress in 2001, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would provide a pathway to legal citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. illegally. As part of a larger reform package, the DREAM Act had a majority of votes in the Senate  in 2007, but ultimately fell eight votes short of the necessary 60 to move ahead with debate. The current version was reintroduced in Congress in March 2009, and as of May, had the support of 120 House co-sponsors and 38 Senate co-sponsors.

If passed, the DREAM Act would offer 360,000 undocumented high school graduates a legal conduit to attend college and work, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute. In order to qualify, a person would have to be between the ages of 12 and 35, have entered the U.S. while under the age of 16 and lived in the country for at least five consecutive years. Other requirements include a high school diploma, GED, or acceptance into an institution of higher education, as well as “good moral character.” Those who meet the requirements could then apply under the DREAM Act, and once approved, granted conditional permanent residency and required to complete at least two years of higher education or military service within six years.

“These students have no other path for legal status,” Adey Fisseha, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said in a telephone interview. “When people ask, ‘Why didn’t you just apply for a green card?’ there’s a lack of recognition that there isn’t a path to do so.”

The in-state tuition question

A 2009 College Board report states that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. each year, but only 5 to 10 percent go on to college. With 40 percent of undocumented children living below the federal poverty line – more than twice the amount of native-born children – out-of-state tuition, which can amount to more than 140 percent of in-state tuition, is often out of reach. Only 31 percent of colleges surveyed by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers verify the immigration status of students seeking financial aid, but 97 percent of colleges surveyed do seek information about applicants’ citizenship status on admission applications.

In addition to not being eligible for financial aid, undocumented immigrants are also unable to work legally in the U.S., obtain proper identification and in most states, cannot get a driver’s license. They are also at daily risk for being detained or deported by immigration authorities. In the year ending September 30, 2009, the U.S. deported 387,790 immigrants.

Ten states already allow undocumented students who are graduates of state public high schools to pay in-state rates for state colleges and universities, beginning with Texas in 2001 and followed by California, Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Oklahoma had previously enacted similar legislation, but repealed it in 2008.

Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a telephone interview that offering in-state tuition to undocumented students is done at the expense of U.S. citizens. “Every state school is in deep financial trouble and is cutting back on enrollment,” he said. “At the university level, there are a finite amount of seats. If an illegal alien wouldn’t have taken a seat, then someone else would have been. There’s a real person being hurt here.”

The current DREAM legislation doesn’t require that states grant in-state tuition, Fisseha said, but just allows states to make the decision to do so. “It’s just a misunderstanding as to what the bill would actually do.”

The College Board report claims that these 10 states have not experienced any additional financial burden or a displacement of native-born students in their educational systems. On the contrary, they have seen an increase in school revenues from students who would not have been able to attend college otherwise. Instead of being a drain on resources, immigrants with college degrees end up paying $5,300 more in income taxes each year than those without college, according to a 1999 RAND study.

It wasn’t until 1996 that federal law was enacted to restrict states from offering in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since then, several states have passed legislation that explicitly prohibits undocumented students from receiving any in-state tuition benefits, including Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina.

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