WASHINGTON – Noting that the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) Act is moving ever closer to congressional passage, national higher education leaders announced the formation of the Act on the DREAM Coalition, comprising more than two dozen higher education organizations that support the legislation. The Hispanic Association of Colleges Universities (HACU) took the lead in uniting 25 national higher education organizations in an effort to help bring the measure to final votes before Congress’ August recess.
“Mr. President and members of Congress, it is high time for you to act on the dream,” said HACU president Dr. Antonio Flores, during the coalition announcement Wednesday at a news conference in downtown Washington.
Supporters have painted the bill with the brush of social justice, calling the challenges undocumented students face unjust and contradictory to the American values many of them have adopted since moving with their families to the U.S.
“We are not a nation that penalizes children for the actions of their parents,” Flores said, referring to the abundance of case law that protects children in the U.S. judicial system.
Keeping these students out of American colleges and universities is also an economic issue and “a colossal waste of precious resources,” advocates said.
“The DREAM Act stands to unleash the potential contribution of academically talented and socially responsible young people, who today remain in the shadows of our communities because they were brought undocumented into this country. … They have grown up as Americans in our midst and have become exemplary students and young leaders,” Flores said.
Individually, several higher education organizations have made the bill, which outlines a process by which undocumented students can be legalized, a top legislative priority. But together the coalition hopes to form a stronger lobby for a stand-alone bill independent of a comprehensive immigration reform package.
“We are talking about children,” said Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). “Punishing them doesn’t honor our American values. They didn’t do anything wrong so why should they be punished?”
Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), said efforts to extend relief to undocumented students are consistent with President Barack Obama’s education agenda.
“Community colleges are being called upon to graduate and enroll larger numbers of students to return this country to world leadership in higher education attainment,” Boggs said. “We as a nation cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in this effort.”
The DREAM Act has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was introduced in 2001 but has never earned the votes necessary for enactment. In 2007, the Senate bill fell just short of the super majority of 60 votes then sought for its passage.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, told coalition leaders that he needs more co-sponsors on the bill for it to gain traction with and attention from other legislators such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
The current bill delineates a multi-step process to help legalize undocumented high school graduates who were brought here before the age of 16, have lived in the U.S. for five consecutive years, are of good moral character, and are committed to attending an institution of higher learning or serve in the military for at least two years, among other requirements.
As it is written, students who meet these requirements would be eligible to petition for conditional residency status. During the six year conditional residency period they must complete either two years of higher education or military service in other to qualify for permanent residency status. The lead sponsors of the bill, Durbin and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), have sent a letter to Secretary Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security asking her to defer deportations on DREAM-eligible students.
Republican legislators have opposed some elements of the bill in fear that it would grant amnesty to an estimated 1 to 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.
Flores said their meetings with Republicans have been promising but they want stern assurances that no extraneous amendments will be brought to the bill concerning broader immigration reform.
“It’s not about amnesty and it’s not about comprehensive immigration reform,” Brown said. “This is about enabling students, who are otherwise deserving and qualified, an opportunity to obtain legal citizenship and a higher education to go to work legally and pay taxes.”
There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented young people graduating from American high schools each year and an estimated 5 to 10 percent go onto college. A 1982 Supreme Court decision guarantees these students receive K-12 public education, but there is no such protection for higher education.
“I think about where I live and I think about how my tax dollars have helped enable these students to go through the public education system,” Brown said. “I’d like a return on my investment, if nothing else.”
Many of the organizations want power shifted back to the states after a 1996 immigration law prohibited states from offering a postsecondary education benefits to undocumented students unless citizens are also eligible.
Coalition members hope the DREAM Act provision to repeal that law will encourage states to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students in their public education systems, just as Texas, California, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Utah, Washington, Illinois and Wisconsin currently do.
“The DREAM Act has never had as much support as it does today,” said Tolu Olubunmi of the United We Dream Network, a youth organization that advocates for immigration reform legislation.
For Gaby Pacheco, an undocumented student who holds three degrees including a bachelor’s in special education, the bill’s passage would help cap her personal efforts to be called an American.
“Even though we put our maximum effort to achieve our dreams and go to college, it’s never going to be enough,” Pacheco said about the hopelessness felt by young people in her situation, “Because unfortunately either you are missing a nine-digit number or a paper that fails to recognize your humanity and fails to recognize your dreams.”