Thursday, December 2, 2010

Students with DREAMs

For many individuals who come to the United States, an important part of the American Dream is for their children to attend college. Unfortunately, for many of these children who were born in a foreign country, it is a dream that is not easy to reach. It is estimated that in the United States, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year[1]. In ten states, these students can qualify to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities should they choose to attend. However, in the remaining 40 states and at private universities, these students must apply as international students and pay full out-of-state tuition costs, currently averaging approximately $27,000 a year[2].
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (“DREAM Act”), a piece of bipartisan legislation which has been proposed on several occasions, would provide a mechanism for undocumented students to obtain legal residency if they have lived in the United States most of their lives. Since 2001, the DREAM Act has been introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives several times. Several versions have emerged, but overall, the purpose of the bill is to allow those students who brought to the U.S. by their parents as children, and who have successfully completed their secondary education, the ability to pay in state tuition and apply for government loan programs so that they may be able to afford a college education.
Under the proposed DREAM Act of 2009, DREAM Act beneficiaries must[3]:
Have proof of having arrived in the United States before age 16;
Have proof of residence in the United States for a least five consecutive years since their date of arrival, compliant with Selective Service;
Be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of bill enactment;
Have graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED;
Be of "good moral character"[3]
If a student meets these criteria, they are granted “conditional” residency status for six years. During this time, they would be required to graduate from a two-year community college, complete at least two years towards a 4-year degree, or serve two years in the U.S. military. During this six-year period, students would not be eligible for federal higher education grants, but they would be able to apply for private loans. After meeting all of the requirements during the six-year “conditional” period, the student can then apply for legal permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship.
For Marisa, a DREAM student, the passing of the DREAM Act would have allowed her to attend college. Marisa had lived in Chicago with her parents since she was three. Her parents, two hardworking immigrants who had to maintain several jobs for many years to put food on the table for their three children, had come to the United States to seek better opportunities for their children, like millions of people have in the history of the United States. When Marisa was in grade school, however, her older brother and sister had to move back to their parents’ hometown in Mexico to continue their education after high school. For both of them, it was not financially possible to attend college in the United States. During Marisa’s junior year in high school, she become aware of her situation and became part of the national movement of DREAM students and fought for the passing of the DREAM Act. Unfortunately, the DREAM Act did not pass and Marisa moved with her family to her parents’ hometown the summer after her high school graduation. It has been more than two years, and because of the differences in the educational systems, Marisa has been unable to register at a university that accepts her credentials.
Marisa’s story is not unique. Every year, DREAM students are forced to begin working jobs for which they are over qualified because they simply cannot afford to continue their education. The benefit provided by our publicly subsidized educational system is wasted, and the potential for further productivity in our society is hampered.
Enactment of the DREAM Act would be recognition of the American values of hard work and perseverance, which have defined the U.S. immigrant experience. For these children, the opportunity to go to college would validate that their hard work in the classroom and their eventual contributions as productive members of society are just as valuable to society as that of their peers, who differ from them in nothing more than their place of birth.
Recently, under the lame duck session of 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has stated that he intends to propose the DREAM Act in Congress once more. This gives DREAM students hope that their hard work and perseverance will prove fruitful.
~Maria Guzman
Since 2007, Maria Guzman has been a senior researcher at CURL and has been part of the advocacy efforts to pass the DREAM Act, both on a city-wide and national level. During her time as Assistant Director of the Youth Options Unlimited program at Erie Neighborhood House, she worked with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and a group of youth to support the enactment of the DREAM Act. At CURL, Maria continues to be actively involved in the passing of the DREAM Act and standing up for undocumented youth who wish to pursue post-secondary education and be active and contributing members of society. Recently, the Ford Foundation has funded Loyola University Chicago (through CURL), Santa Clara University, and Fairfield University to survey the social and legal context and current practices and attitudes at the three universities and in American Jesuit institutions in general regarding undocumented students. More specifically, the focus will be to investigate the pathways set up for undocumented students who attend Jesuit post-secondary institutions in the United States, as well as document these students’ experiences when seeking post-secondary education.

[1]College Board Press Release (2009). “Young lives on hold: The college dreams of undocumented students- Why we need the DREAM Act.”
[2]College Board Advocacy & Policy Center (2010). “Trends in College Pricing, 2010.”
[3]National Immigration Law Center (2010). “DREAM Act: Summary.”