Do DREAM Kids Have a Right to an Education?

There has been a lot of press recently about the plight of illegal immigrants, though most of the coverage on Friends of Justice has centered on basic human rights and adult deportation rules. In the article below. Rachel Higgins looks at a dilemma all too common among younger generations of immigrants: access to education and college funding. Rachel writes about issues impacting college students for a site that examines 1,691 accredited online colleges and provides comparison information for those considering an online education.

Colleges and Legislators Continue to Debate the Right to Education

Rachel Higgins

As Democrats and Republicans continue to debate the conditions of a federal DREAM Act, many provincial programs have enabled children of undocumented citizens to receive financial aid, earn a college degree and enter the workforce as trained professionals, something the country so desperately needs.  In recent years, financial aid for illegal immigrants has been a hot-button topic among American lawmakers. Some have stated that a higher number of well-educated, first-generation Americans would be beneficial to the country, while others argue that individuals who have not become legal citizens have no right to education in the United States.

In June 2012, President Obama announced he was enacting a law that deferred deportation of immigrants who met certain requirements of American citizenship, even if their status in the country was currently illegal. In order to pass this step of the so-called “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the president circumvented Congress in order to spearhead the law. This ostensible “abuse of power” drew criticism from House Republicans, wrote NPR contributor Frank James.  “Americans should be outraged that President Obama is planning to usurp the Constitutional authority of the United States Congress and grant amnesty by edict to 1 million illegal aliens,” said Rep. Steve King [R-Iowa].

Introduced in October 2011, We Can’t Wait was Obama’s response to stalemates between Congress and the White House in the area of economic legislation, as well as the debt ceiling crisis that occurred earlier that year, nearly resulting in a government shutdown.  Other We Can’t Wait proposals include reduced loan debt for students, tax credits for employers who hire disabled U.S. military veterans, and expansions to federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Home Affordable Refinance Program. White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer noted that We Can’t Wait was simply a response to ineffectual House members. “When Congress won’t act, the president will,” he told The Washington Times. On the other hand, some Republicans argue the initiative is merely an outlet by which the president can appeal to various interest groups – and characterize the House as “uncooperative” in the eyes of the American public in the process.

Now, the president has tied We Can’t Wait to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin [D-Ill.] and Sen. Orrin Hatch [R-Utah] in 2001, the DREAM Act has been rewritten into several different versions over the last 11 years. The act essentially relaxes immigration policy for illegal aliens who enter the country as minors, graduate from high school, and refrain from criminal activity. Since its inception, Republicans have lambasted the DREAM Act as amnesty for current illegal immigrants – and incentive for foreign citizens to enter the United States unlawfully.  However, a 2010 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that passage of the DREAM Act would carry many economic benefits, namely a $2.3 billion increase in government revenues over the next 10 years and a reduced deficit of roughly $1.4 billion over the same period. There is another indirect benefit: a generation of new citizens who are educated and employable, promising to give the national economy a much-needed boost.

While most Republicans have opposed the federal version of the DREAM Act, some members of the GOP have favored state versions of the bill. Texas Governor Rick Perry vocally expressed support in Fall 2011 during his brief presidential bid. He cited the number of students in Texas – more than 32,000 – who have received needed tuition breaks as part of the state measure that grants in-state tuition to children of undocumented citizens who graduate from high school, live in the state for at least three years and sign a pledge to eventually seek legal citizenship. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said.

While financial cost has been a major talking point of the DREAM Act debate, supporters of the measure argue that it is not nearly as expensive as critics say. In August 2012, the Department of Homeland Security announced that undocumented immigrants would each be required to pay $465 in order to receive legal status; the fee would negate the need to spend taxpayer funds on illegal citizens. In addition, lawmakers claim that several state versions of the act carry far more benefits than costs.

Professors at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County conducted a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the state’s DREAM Act was a good investment for their state. They found that the total benefit for public and private schools as a result of the act would be roughly $66 billion over 10 years; the federal government would also net $18 billion on an annual basis. “The logic is that the state has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the schooling of each one of those students,” noted The Baltimore Sun, “but investing just a little bit more in the form of tuition subsidies for higher education can drastically increase their lifetime earnings potential (and, as a consequence, the taxes they will eventually pay).” More than a dozen other states currently have similar programs to benefit children of undocumented citizens who wish to earn an education.

In New York, where lawmakers have been slower to enact a state version of the DREAM Act, some advocacy groups have introduced a scholarship program for undocumented students. The scholarships, which are entirely funded by private donors and non-profit organizations, allot $2,000 per semester to each recipient. In order to earn the scholarship, students must participate in leadership training programs and intern with immigrant advocacy agencies in New York City. The scholarships are intended to offset tuition costs faced by illegal immigrants who under New York law are not entitled to financial aid.

While Democrats and Republicans grapple over the conditions of a federal DREAM Act, state programs have enabled children of undocumented citizens to receive financial aid, earn a college degree and enter the workforce as trained professionals. Like all government programs, the DREAM Act requires funding; but the benefits of such a measure far outweigh the monetary costs.