Realizing the DREAM Act at the State Level

By: Michele Kinney

As Congress has continually failed to come to an agreement on immigration reform in recent terms, innovative solutions have been proposed at both the state and federal levels to give more control to state governments in addressing immigration issues. This is especially true for the large group of undocumented students known collectively as DREAMers. The key provisions of the DREAM Act would give students meeting DREAM criteria a pathway to legal status and citizenship if they go to college or serve in the military. In addition, the Act would eliminate rules which penalize or make it difficult for states to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students.

DREAMer legislation has been proposed, but has yet to pass in Congress.  Despite the DREAMers recognition as the most sympathetic group of undocumented people in the United States, legislation to help them has failed to pass numerous times in Congress in recent years. The bills introduced to Congress would establish  a path to citizenship for children who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents, through no fault of their own, when they were dependents or young children.  This population would have to prove they have lived in the United States continuously for five years, have good moral character, and have graduated from a U.S. high school, received a General Education Diploma (GED), or served in the armed forces.  There are an estimated 1.8 million people in the US who would qualify under the DREAM Act, with another 65,000 DREAMers graduating from U.S. high schools every year.  Despite its seemingly uncontroversial nature, in comparison to other immigration debates, the DREAM act remains in limbo.

On January 16, 2014, Congresswoman Patty Murray (D-WA) proposed the “IN-STATE for DREAMERS ACT of 2014”; the bill was co-sponsored by Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO).  The IN-STATE Act would create the American Dream Grant program as a way to encourage states to make higher- education more accessible to low-income students, regardless of immigration status.  The program would allocate $750 million over ten years to states that offer financial aid and access to equitable in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.  The proposed legislation states that “American Dream Grants would supplement state financial aid funding, in order to increase higher education affordability for all students.”  The difference between average in-state and out-of-state tuitions at public, four-year colleges is $13,311.  The bill would lower the average price from $22,203 for out-of-state students, to $8,893 for in-state.

Complimentary legislation at the state level, in Murray’s home state of Washington, was passed by a bipartisan Senate.  The legislation (SB 6523), known by the Democrats as the Dream Act and by the Republicans as the Real Hope Act, was introduced with enthusiasm on January 30, 2014 and pushed to the floor without committee hearing on Friday in the senate.  The Real Hope Act, was adopted as the official title when the bill was voted on, with representative Barbara Bailey coining the bill’s slogan, “No More Dreams: This is Real Hope.”  The Dream Act increases access to financial aid for college-age students in Washington State who are without legal immigration status.  The bill adds $5 million to state-based grants and makes the aid available to students who came to the country illegally with their parents if they have lived in the state for at least three years and would otherwise qualify for the aid.  Currently, nineteen states offer in-state tuition for undocumented students.

The Washington state Dream Act is the most recent in a string of state responses to the federal attempts at passing the DREAM Act. In 2011, both California and Illinois enacted legislation to aid immigrant children in attending college.  In July, the California DREAM Act gave illegal immigrant students access to private college scholarships in state schools.  Illinois created a privately funded scholarship plan for children of immigrants, both legal and illegal.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, in 2012 when the Obama administration announced they would stop deporting immigrant children who met the qualifications of the proposed DREAM Act legislation, Arizona Governor Jan Brewster released an executive order stating that Arizona would not grant driver’s licenses to participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; a program aiding a population similar to that of  the DREAM Act.  The executive order is currently being challenged in circuit court by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Considering the current state of the government, with Congress so divided on immigration reform that a solution could take years, it is crucial that state governments continue to step up and help DREAMers finance a college education.  DREAMers are children who have grown up in America and who have not intentionally broken any immigration laws.  They deserve the same right to higher education, and the possible financial security it can bring, as children born here who have found equal success in high school.  It is time to stop punishing the DREAMers for the sins of their fathers or mothers, and to provide them equal access to the American Dream.

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