DREAM Act Enters New Phase Among Certain Progressive States

Education may be a ticket to upward socioeconomic mobility for most college graduates, but Daniela Alulema’s bachelor’s degree in accounting hasn’t gotten her far. She says her status as an undocumented immigrant has forced her to put her career plans on hold.

For nearly a decade Congress has failed to pass a bill — the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — that would grant Alulema legal residence and free her from a life in the shadows. So Alulema, like other activists, is looking to her state for help. Administrators and faculty at New York schools and leaders at government agencies signed a petition that Alulema and other organizers put together, but to no avail.

“We saw last year that the federal government is unwilling to take any kind of step toward humane immigration reform,” says Alulema. “We decided that this time we’re going to take the battle to the state level.”

Thanks to New York’s in-state tuition law for undocumented students, Alulema was able to pay her way through the City University of New York, using her parents’ life savings and revenue from part-time jobs. “It was a tough ride, but I made it now,” says the 24-year-old, who currently works with the New York State Leadership Council, an organization that presses for access to higher education through grass-roots community organizing and leadership development.

Making it out of high school and into — and through — college puts Alulema in the distinct minority among undocumented immigrants. According to a March policy brief by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, only between 5 percent and 10 percent of the nation’s approximately 65,000 undocumented high schoolers go on to college.

“We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. We’re coming out in more numbers and stronger,” says Alulema.

The DREAM Act would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants under 30 years of age who were younger than 16 when they were brought to the country and who either enroll in college or join the armed forces. Now, Alulema is campaigning for a New York DREAM Act that would give her access to a driver’s license and health care, while allowing undocumented students to get financial aid and even giving some undocumented immigrants permission to work.

While permission to work is a very long shot, since it falls under federal jurisdiction, Alulema says she and other advocates have talked to several lawyers who say this could be possible through loopholes.

“It can’t be as effective as the federal DREAM Act, but it will give us something,” she says.

Several state senators and assemblymen have expressed interest in a New York DREAM Act, but no promises have been made since advocates are still drawing up the bill’s language.

A New Political Calculus

It’s not just Alulema who has lost faith in Washington. Blakely Elizabeth Whilden, assistant director of federal relations and policy analysis for the AASCU, says passing the DREAM Act has become an even more far-fetched dream with the new,  more conservative Congress this year.

“Certainly we all recognize that the political calculus has changed on Capitol Hill and that we have a very conservative Republican caucus on the House side,” she says. “The balance of power has changed on the Senate side.”

Although U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Dick Lugar, R-Ind., are looking to reintroduce the bill, many state legislators aren’t waiting around for cues from the federal government on immigration reform.

“There is frustration in the states because of the failure of Congress to resolve some of these issues,” says Alene Russell, senior state policy consultant at AASCU. She notes that in the past four years no states have decided to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students because they are afraid the federal government will override their laws in the end.

A New Trend

“There is probably a little more activity in terms of states either wanting to repeal the in-state tuition laws or wanting to pass preventive legislation,” says Russell.

Alabama has banned undocumented students from enrolling at two-year schools. Georgia has barred them from selective institutions and South Carolina has prohibited undocumented students from attending any institution of higher learning altogether. Brought about largely as a result of Republican successes in the November 2010 election, the number of states instituting laws antagonizing undocumented immigrants has surged, while the states that allow undocumented students to get in-state tuition have plateaued at 10 (California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin). Only Texas and New Mexico offer some undocumented students access to financial aid.

Despite President Barack Obama’s vocal support for the DREAM Act, momentum for the legislation has slowed and, with it, hope for a federal solution.

“When Obama came to office, all of us, as young people and as organizers, were very hopeful that there was going to be a change,” says Alulema. “I remember all of us were crying when we saw the results of the election and we thought, this is our time, this is our moment. But three years have gone by and nothing but deportations and lack of leadership have come out of the White House. We’re not depending on Obama’s word anymore.”