08/10/2011 09:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011

Reconsidering the DREAM Act

Given my last name, you might assume I'm Hispanic and an advocate of minority support programs. Although the former is true (I am a Florida-born Cuban American), I was initially very opposed to the much debated DREAM Act - better known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

Currently a resident and student in Florida -- ranked third in the nation for undocumented immigrants at 3.8 percent of the population -- I strongly believed that providing economic support to other students who resided illegally in this country was not fair or right. As a U.S. citizen born of Hispanic parents, I followed the rules and worked hard to earn a college degree. I believed undocumented students who, after all, are illegally in the country had no right to reap the same benefits that I worked so hard for.

But, the Senate Judiciary hearing that took place last month completely changed my mind. It was Texas Sen. John Cornyn's assumptions about immigrants, and flawed interpretation of the act, that bothered me the most. In no uncertain terms, he began to suggest that those who may have misdemeanor charges could be eligible. Just by suggesting a relationship between criminal acts and eligible students, I decided then to read the act more carefully, and follow the debate with a more critical eye.

As it turns out, those applying under the act have to pass through a process where "good moral character" is considered along with other requirements: Applicants must have entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and be less than 35 years of age, lived continuously in the U.S. for at least five years and earned a high school diploma. If they can meet all of those requirements, they are eligible to pay the state tuition rate for higher education and, once they complete at least two years of college or military service, they would be provided with conditional permanent resident status for six years.

There are many other assumptions made about the DREAM Act, some of which I initially shared. For one thing, many interpret this bill as having major implications for broader immigration reform when, in fact, its main purpose is to provide college access for students who have resided in this country for much of their lives. A growing number of undocumented children make up our K-12 system. By providing a better opportunity for these students to attend college and become more educated and productive members of society, we can capitalize on the dozen years of free K-12 public education they received as young children paid for by taxpayers.

Capitalizing on this prior education isn't just good for the individual students; it would provide a greater economic benefit for our country as well. What else will these young adults do if they cannot pursue higher education and cannot find legal work? The possibilities are many, and mostly unsettling. A University of California-Los Angeles study estimated that these dreamers, if given the chance, would generate about $3.6 trillion in the span of 40 years.

As a resident of a state where education is a very competitive and limited resource, my initial fear was that this act would provide a financial burden on citizens like me who struggle enough, as it is to reach my goals. But upon reading the act carefully, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is defining much of the debate, it seems clear to me now that these students are not my competition. They are my peers, who represent the future of this country as much as I do.