Before his family left Mexico, Joseluis Zacatelco remembers what his grandfather told him one afternoon while tending the fields of their rancho, where their profitable livestock had once grazed.
“You are going somewhere far,” Zacatelco recalled his abuelo’s words. “With education and perseverance, you can become the man of your dreams.”
Brought to the United States as a pre-teen, Zacatelco, now 30, carried the advice with him but didn’t realize his immigration status would obstruct his path. Today, as an activist he has walked hundreds of miles this year to advocate for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, congressional legislation that would create a pathway to protected legal status for undocumented students.
“In applying for college, I realized I needed a Social Security number and I didn’t know what that was,” he said. “I think I was very innocent and ignorant of how the system worked.”
Every year, four-year higher education institutions receive thousands of applications from students like Zacatelco, who remain undeterred in their quest of earning a scholarship or financial aid for college.
In a survey released today, the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported that about 60 percent of 382 participating institutions said they had received college applications from undocumented students. Among the most selective nonprofit colleges in the survey sample, the percentage is 86 percent.
“Many undocumented students turn out to be very high-achieving and it would substantiate the description of these students as contributors to our society,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC. NACAC supports the DREAM Act.
Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) sponsored the Senate version of the bill along with 37 Senate co-sponsors. The House version, which is authored by Rep. Howard Berman, (D-Calif.), has 120 House co-sponsors.
Most college admission counselors have no knowledge of an applicant’s immigration status, but supplemental materials like recommendation letters or essays can divulge information about a student, Hawkins said.
Admission counselors develop relationships with high schools in their communities and know when these students apply to their schools. But there isn’t an exact number, Hawkins said.
“Admissions officers reported that they received these applications. There are no guarantees, but it gives us a rough idea,” Hawkins said. “We were looking for a thumbnail sketch of the number of colleges that have contact with undocumented students. They might not be able to substantiate it completely but it’s a snapshot of what’s out there.”
Among the surveyed institutions, about 71 percent of public colleges and universities and over half of private colleges reported they received applications from undocumented students.
The possible deportation of a Harvard University sophomore and the recent arrest of a Kennesaw State University student has only heightened the concern for advocates who want victory for the 9-year-old campaign by the close of the 111th Congress.
“The bottom line is these kids really have no more control over their documentation status than they did when they were 5 years old. To suggest they are culpable for their documentation status runs counter to Supreme Court decisions and basic human rights,” Hawkins said. “Our obligation as a nation is to allow these students who have made the best of their situation and give them a shot to higher education so they can contribute to this country.”
Previous efforts have coupled the DREAM Act with some other comprehensive immigration reform bills without success.
Education organizations have thrown their support behind NACAC’s research and the bill, including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the Association of State Colleges and Universities (ASCU), and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), which advocate that states should be able to determine public institution admission policies.
“I think there is a lot of support for the particular substance of the Dream Act,” said Jim Hermes, Director of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Three years ago when we got to a Senate cloture vote, we didn’t get the 60 we needed but we are going to have that chance this year.”
Among its most heralded as well as criticized provisions, the bill outlines a pathway to citizenship for students brought to the U.S. as children (before their 16th birthday) either through higher education or military service. It would also allow undocumented students with adjusted legal statuses to be eligible for financial aid programs such as federal work-study and student loans but not Pell grants.
The Urban Institute estimates that about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year and would benefit from the bill. Supporters position their argument around the loss of a class of promising immigrants who would expand the tax base and enrich communities.
DREAM Act opponents say any move to extend benefits to undocumented students that citizens do not enjoy is a violation of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. States are prohibited from “providing a postsecondary education benefit to an alien not lawfully present unless any citizen or national is eligible for such benefit,” according to the law.
The DREAM Act would authorize the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allow states to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.
Nevertheless, ten states including California, Texas, Washington, New Mexico and Kansas, offer in-state tuition to undocumented students with conditions. In-state tuition eligibility provisions are currently undergoing legal challenges in those states.
Legislatures in other states have passed legislation similar to the DREAM Act, but the laws were vetoed by their governors. South Carolina bars undocumented students from enrolling and others are exploring similar statutes.