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Undocumented Immigrants and College

Undocumented Immigrants and College
Community colleges could be key in educating undocumented students

For undocumented immigrants, the road to college can have even more potholes than for the average Hispanic student. While the 1982  Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteed education through high school for undocumented immigrants, the bridge to postsecondary school can be more complicated. Some states are considering — or have already begun — offering in-state tuition for undocumented students. But students fear problems with the government if their immigration status is revealed and are forced to live in a sort of immigration “don’t ask, don’t tell,” status.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow students who meet certain criteria to be eligible for federal student aid, and more importantly, permanent residency. Community colleges could play a big part in the implementation of the act, because a key element is a requirement that participants complete an associate degree or two years of military service.

“To qualify for immigration relief under the DREAM Act, a student must have been brought to the U.S. more than five years ago when she/he was 15 years old or younger, and must be able to demonstrate good moral character. Under the DREAM Act, once such a student graduates from high school, he or she would be permitted to apply for conditional status, which would authorize up to six years of legal residence.
“During the six-year period, the student would be required to graduate from a two-year college, complete at least two years towards a four-year degree, or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years. Permanent residence would be granted at the end of the six-year period if these requirements have been met and if the student has continued to maintain good moral character,” reads the National Immigration Law Center’s policy paper on the act.

In-State Tuition
Nine states have already enacted legislation to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Those states are California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington.

Those opposing the legislation believe that allowing such students the in-state benefit would result in stretching too-few education dollars even further, and some believe that the act would reward people who are here illegally and therefore don’t deserve any benefits at all.
Some argue that such legislation is actually illegal. But according to the Supreme Court’s ruling, schools in question are required to offer equal benefits only to those in the same situation, in this case, all undocumented residents in the United States. Although immigration restrictionists have clamored that undocumented students will flood the schools, national figures haven’t borne that out.

“Such legislation does not deprive the states of revenue from large numbers of students who would otherwise pay out-of-state tuition. Rather, it raises the percentage of high school graduates who pursue a college degree,” said the National Immigration Law center in a July statement.

States that have enacted the law have not reported a rush
to enroll from undocumented students. The Dallas County Community College District reported that they had just over 800 undocumented students enrolled during the spring of this year, out of a total student body of more than 65,000.

“It hasn’t been a big deal,” says Dr. Jesus “Jess” Carreon, president of the district. “They come, they enroll, they go to class, just like anyone else.”

A Help, But Not a Fix
Paying in-state tuition is certainly a break for undocumented students, but it’s just part of the picture. Because they are still ineligible for federal loans and work-study programs, making enough money to stay in school long enough to complete a degree is that much harder — and not only can they not earn money through work-study programs, they aren’t legally eligible for any paid work at all, which can get sticky. Also, the DREAM Act would allow eligible students to receive federal aid but would not make in-state tuition mandatory — that would be left up to the states.

These laws are a step toward providing opportunity, but as the director of federal policy at the National Immigration Law Center, Josh Bernstein, has said, it requires a leap of faith by parents to pay even the in-state tuition. If by some twist the DREAM Act didn’t pass, there could be a lot of undocumented immigrants with degrees and nowhere legal to use them.

“It’s got a decent chance of passing this session in Congress,” says Bernstein, adding that the delays of past sessions are not likely to happen this time around.

— Kristin Bagnato

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