February 7, 2003

Perspective

DREAM Act Holds Promises for Undocumented Immigrants

By: Victor Menaldo

Between 50,000 to 70,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year. This is important. In the United States, a high school degree is a prerequisite for a college education. So, as a society it behooves us to ask, what do America’s Latin American, Asian and Middle Eastern undocumented immigrants do with these valuable diplomas upon graduation?

Suffice to say that most high school graduates who happen to be illegal immigrants do not attend college. But this is usually not because they do not aspire to do so. Unfortunately, although many graduates of immigrant parents repine a college degree, they usually go on to browner, not greener, pastures: their lack of higher credentials earmarks them for lives as auto mechanics, low-wage laborers or fast food factory workers.

By dint of their legal status - rather than their intellectual ability, study habits or desires - undocumented immigrants’ opportunities are severely limited.

Theoretically, undocumented immigrants can - and some do - earn college degrees in the United States. Realistically, it is nearly impossible for them to do so. On the one hand, it is extremely cost prohibitive and they are not eligible to receive federal financial aid. On the other hand, upon graduating from college they are disallowed from working legally in the United States.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minor Act (the DREAM Act) holds the promise to change this unfortunate situation. Under this promising legislation, college aspirants who are illegal aliens and who evidence genuine academic and professional potential would gain the opportunity to become U.S. residents. This means that undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school and are academically deserving would be able to gain access to the financial aid they need to defray the cost of college and, by virtue of the residence status, the promise for a white-collar job upon college graduation.

The DREAM Act is popular and has bipartisan support, with sponsors on both sides of the aisle, including Senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in June but didn’t come up for a full vote.  Hatch plans to re-introduce the bill this Congressional Term. The House of Representatives has been considering a similar bill.

The DREAM Act would apply only to young people in the United States at the time of its passage and would expire after six years. Applicants must be between 12 and 21 and have been in the country at least five years at the time that the bill became law. Anyone with a criminal record would be excluded.

Immigrants over 21 would qualify if they obtained their high school diploma or equivalent within four years of the law’s enactment and either enrolled in college or have graduated from college.

Also, the bill would make it easier for states to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. Currently only California, Texas, New York and Utah allow that.

The bill’s opponents include Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who claims the bill would reward illegal immigrants and encourage illegal immigration. Another opponent of the bill, The Federation for American Immigration Reform believes the federal government should not have to pay for the mistakes of parents who brought their children to the United States illegally. At first blush, this seems draconian and mean-spirited.

However, supporters of this bill should not dismiss their opponents’ position out of hand. It would be an exemption from the process that immigrants without high school degrees and college potential must go through to gain residency.

And, from the strict rule of law perspective, undocumented immigrants’ claim that by virtue of their academic achievement and potential, alone, they deserve to be exempted from normal residency requirements is spurious. In other words, even if some illegal immigrants prove themselves academically meritorious, this does not diminish the fact that the rules of the game are being unfairly forsaken in order to allow them to finance their college education and find work legally upon graduation.

Basically, this is a “two wrongs don’t make a right” argument. In many ways, it is compelling.   

Yet, undocumented immigrants have a right to a public high school education. Moreover, the United States has long benefited by “brain gain” rather than “brain drain”: droves of smart and educated foreign students leave their home countries daily to attend college and graduate school in the United States and a disproportionate amount of them stay here. Fortunately, by remaining in this country after college and graduate school, these immigrants contribute knowledge, skills and productivity to our economy. And their relatively high income brings in a wind fall of tax revenue that helps subsidize financial aid and academic loans, even though they themselves do not qualify for this aid or these loans. In general, legal student immigrants improve our quality of life.

Why shouldn’t illegal ones do the same? If illegal immigrants are going to remain in this country anyway - not because the INS has fallen asleep at the wheel but because the American economy needs their labor - then why not increase our brain gain by helping them get through college and allowing them to work legally upon graduation?

If anything, if formerly illegal immigrants become legal through a college degree and a high paying white collar job it will bolster assimilation for a wider cohort of immigrants. This is a surefire way to increase their quality of life and contribute a new generation of American citizens and leaders with a stake in their society and an unmatched appreciation for the value of American higher education. Significant brain gain and a civic contribution – this is what visionary legislation like the DREAM ACT promises.

Menaldo is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Political Economy at Claremont Graduate University.

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