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New Congress More Amenable to the DREAM Act

New Congress More Amenable to the DREAM Act

By Charles Dervarics

A bill to eliminate many higher education barriers for undocumented students may get new life in the now Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress, say advocates who hope to break a six-year stalemate on the issue.

Student groups and minority-serving organizations are touting the benefits of the DREAM Act, a bill that would open a path to immigration for college-bound students who have lived most of their lives in the United States but lack legal status. Under the bill, students who finish high school and at least two years of college could obtain permanent legal residency. They also could get greater access to in-state tuition rates.

“There are signs that Congress is beginning to take this seriously,” says Melissa Lazarin, associate director for education policy at the National Council of La Raza. She says she is encouraged that lawmakers have introduced the DREAM Act in both the House and the Senate already this year. “In past years, we haven’t been able to move this quickly,” she says.

In introducing the bill, lawmakers noted that college access for these students may help immigrant communities as well as the national economy.

“We hinder our competitiveness in the global economy by keeping large numbers of U.S.-educated immigrant young people out of college,” says U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.

Since the DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001, about 390,000 undocumented youth have graduated from high school with few realistic hopes of attending college, according to NCLR.

“When they finish high school, these students choose between working illegally or trying somehow to continue their education while under a legal cloud,” says U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., another co-sponsor of the bill.

The DREAM Act has met with varied degrees of support in the past six years. In May 2006, it passed the Senate as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but the House never took up the measure.
It has earned as many as 48 Senate co-sponsors — including presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz. — and 150 House co-sponsors.

“Obviously, the shift in the House will allow more debate and dialogue,” says Lazarin. NCLR officials are optimistic the bill can clear a House committee with relative ease, meaning that floor action may be possible later this year.

Although some undocumented students may go to community colleges, their future is often bleak because their parents came to the United States illegally.

“These students go through K-12 expecting to get into higher education, and then they’re told that’s not possible,” says Scott Lu, director of USSA’s students of color campus diversity project.

Among other provisions, the DREAM Act would provide conditional permanent resident status to students who have graduated from a two-year college, studied two years toward a bachelor’s degree or served in the U.S. Armed Forces for two years. To qualify, students must have been brought to the United States more than five years ago, when they were age 15 or younger.

Another provision would repeal sections of a 1996 law that discourages states from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Since that law took effect, 10 states have enacted laws permitting undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition if they graduated from a high school within that state.

The DREAM Act continues to face strong opposition from groups seeking more controls on immigration, however. The proposal is “a massive illegal alien amnesty program disguised as an educational initiative,” according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group.

Advocates believe that 2007 is a crucial year for the bill. Despite the change in power on Capitol Hill, the window of opportunity may close as neither political party is likely to take up such a controversial issue in 2008, an election year.

No action on the DREAM Act is currently scheduled. But one congressional aide says sponsors are “equally, if not more optimistic” that some action will take place this year.

Prompt action would help thousands of undocumented students preparing to graduate from high school later this spring.

“These students are American in every way except one,” says NCLR President Janet Murguia. “They simply lack the opportunity that many Americans have — the chance to become educated and get ahead in life.”

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