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The DREAM Act: Keeping Our Promise to Our Kids

Posted: 05/14/11 11:30 AM ET

Co-authored by Georgeanne Usova, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's one of the most common questions we ask our children. And no matter what answer they give -- veterinarian, astronaut, president -- we tell them the same thing: work hard in school, and you can do it.

But for thousands of young adults raised in this country, it's not that simple. For those who were brought to the U.S. by their parents without proper documentation, current laws continue to keep their dreams out of reach. For them, unlike the classmates they have grown up next to, pursuing a college education and a career isn't just a matter of working hard and achieving academically. Instead, they face many roadblocks in their path to success: crushing financial burden, discriminatory enrollment policies, and the constantly looming threat of deportation.

The DREAM Act, reintroduced in Congress this week, would give undocumented young people the chance to overcome these obstacles by providing a clear path to citizenship, and the ability to attend public universities at an affordable rate. DREAM would allow states to charge in-state tuition rates to all resident students, regardless of immigration status. Only those who were brought to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger, have lived in this country for at least five years, have good moral character, have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, and who attend either college or military service for at least two years, would be eligible for citizenship. Those who meet these rigid eligibility requirements have truly demonstrated their commitment to building a life in the U.S.

With the recent reintroduction, we must remember the urgency of this legislation for so many young people. A group of 22 senators recently sent a letter to President Obama asking him to use his discretion to halt deportations of DREAM-eligible individuals. Unfortunately, although President Obama voiced his support for DREAM in an El Paso speech on immigration reform this week, he has not granted DREAM-eligible students this relief. With little sign of help coming from the administration, the DREAM Act is the only hope in sight for many talented young immigrants. For many of them, every day that we don't pass this legislation is a day marked with uncertainty.

Financing a college education is particularly difficult for undocumented youth because they are ineligible to receive federal financial aid or loans under current federal laws. Even at relatively affordable public universities, undocumented students in most states are charged out-of-state tuition rates, which are prohibitively expensive for most immigrant families. This effectively blocks many undocumented youth from all higher education other than community or junior colleges, leading to serious inequality of educational opportunities.

Providing access to affordable higher education for all students through the DREAM Act is a crucial step to ensuring equal protection and fairness under our laws. Eleven states, including Maryland most recently, agree, and have passed tuition equality laws that allow undocumented students who attended and graduated from a high school in the state to pay the in-state rate at public universities. But unfortunately, some states have taken the opposite approach. In 2009, South Carolina became the only state in the nation to ban undocumented youth from enrolling in all public universities. And in Georgia, the university system passed a discriminatory policy that denies undocumented students enrollment at the state's five most selective institutions.

Georgia is already losing out: Javier, a Georgia high school senior with a 4.125 GPA and heavy AP course load, will now be among those students heading out of state to continue his education. Just a day after Javier submitted his application to Georgia State, Georgia's discriminatory policy took effect, barring him from enrolling at the university. Instead, the gifted student plans to attend a California university on a substantial scholarship.

In addition to financial hardship and discriminatory enrollment policies, the threat of deportation follows these young people wherever they go. With the increased use of programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, which put local law enforcement officers in charge of enforcing immigration laws, undocumented students are increasingly becoming the target of racial profiling. Jessica Colotl, 22, has been in the U.S. since the age of 10, and just this week, she graduated from Kennesaw State University with a B.S. in Political Science and a French studies minor. But it nearly didn't happen. As a student, Jessica was arrested on a minor traffic violation in Cobb County, Georgia, which participates in the 287(g) program. The local sheriff's office turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which sent her to a detention facility in Alabama to await deportation to Mexico, a country that she had not seen since early childhood. She only narrowly avoided deportation, and despite being granted a temporary extension to remain in the U.S., her future remains very uncertain.

The DREAM Act would help keep smart, hardworking young people like Javier and Jessica from getting caught up in law enforcement policies intended to target perpetrators of dangerous felonies. By allowing these deserving young people to legalize their status, they will finally have the same opportunity as their peers to attend competitive schools and live without fear of being deported.

In this country, success shouldn't depend on where we came from or who our parents are. When we tell our children that if they work hard, they can do anything, it should be the truth.