US: Support for Undocumented Immigrant Students

Backing for America’s bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has grown steadily since its introduction to Congress in 2001. Most recently, though, it has received renewed support from the labour movement, an action applauded by the United States Students’ Association earlier in the month.

The act, which has yet to be passed, addresses the situation experienced by more than 65,000 students whose parents or guardians remain illegally in the US. While they have been able to graduate from high school, they cannot pursue higher education legally or participate fully in the economy.

Children of illegal immigrants have been granted legal access to K-12 schooling since 1982, but have few viable avenues for access into or success after higher education – because they are not citizens. Neither 14th Amendment guarantees nor naturalisation can offer them that status. Instead, most see uncertain futures, with some facing forced deportation to countries they barely know.

With support from the education community, student organisations and organised labour, the act would allow eligible, undocumented students the chance to obtain conditional legal status. This would then make it possible for them to enrol in post-secondary education, serve in the military or become tax-paying citizens.

Now 25, Carlos (who chose not to give his last name) came to the US when he was 14. He summarises his situation – and that of many others:

"Since I came to this country, I was taught that education is the only pathway to a better life. I have realised that, for some people, it takes more than hard work and dedication; it also takes the help of individuals and a change in policies," he said, adding that the DREAM Act would "finally prove right that hard work is rewarded".

Underlining the desultory nature of current education and immigration laws, United States Students’ Association (USSA) president Lindsay McCluskey recently noted that the DREAM Act would "move our country closer to a truly just society".

According to the Migration Policy Institute there are an estimated 2.1 million undocumented youths and young adults who could benefit from passage of the act. Statistics show that most have come from Mexico (62%) or Central and Latin America (22%) and reside in California (26%), Texas (12%) and Florida (9%).

Author of Wasted Talent and Broken Dreams: The Lost potential of undocumented students (2007) and University of Washington professor Roberto Gonzales notes that while the proposed legislation is laudable, its benefits would probably only extend to about 40% of the total (around 825,000 people).

Moreover, these students would not be eligible for Pell Grants and other federally administered grants – thus presenting yet another barrier for those coming from impoverished backgrounds.

He also notes that there are other challenges associated with "getting these students through the K-12 pipeline and into post-secondary institutions", since the majority of them come from "groups that have historically lagged behind in educational attainment. Work would need to be done to eradicate many of the structural conditions that have plagued these communities for decades."

Although chances of the act’s passage in 2010 are narrow (especially with mid-term elections in November looming), Gonzales notes that its high visibility and support from the American public give it a "better chance than ever".

There are an estimated 1.8 million school-aged children – 15% of the illegal immigrant population – currently living in the US.


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