Afford to Dream

06/08/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Somewhere in America, a high school junior just finished basketball practice and is walking home from school. She's running through her to-do list for the rest of the day: shower, do some chores, work a shift at a local restaurant, go back to school for a debate team meeting, finish an AP US History project and pre-calculus problems, and study for an honors French exam. She's stressed, but motivated - she's determined to do whatever it takes to be the first in her family to attend college. Around midnight, her mother comes home from her full-time job as a nanny. She drops by her daughter's room to tell her that she loves her and she's proud of her. The girl kisses her mother, and goes back to homework.

It seems like the girl will matriculate to college. She works hard, is well rounded, and takes challenging classes. It seems like she'll have a better life than her mother and live the American dream. But there's a catch: she's undocumented.

DREAM-ers are undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children through no fault of their own. They grow up attending public schools, celebrating the Fourth of July, and cherishing our country's great history and values. They compete in the same sports teams as other children, watch the same TV programs, dress up for the same Homecoming and Prom dances, and ride the same bus to school. They are Americans, who have no home other than the United States.

DREAM-ers often come from extremely low-income households. As such, many face difficulties financing higher education. They do not qualify for federal financial aid, only about 18 states offer them in-state tuition rates, and only a shocking 5 offer them state financial aid. In the past few years, a movement has emerged to expand access to higher education further for undocumented young Americans.

Connecticut is one of the current stages of the battle. A 2011 law gave many undocumented students access to instate tuition rates. In this past legislative session, thanks to the legislative advocacy of Connecticut Students for a DREAM and supporting groups, a bill increasing the number of undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition rates passed both the House and Senate. However, another bill that would have allowed undocumented students to qualify for state financial aid failed in the House.

In a Facebook post following the House decision on the financial aid bill, Lucas Codognolla, lead coordinator of Connecticut Students for a DREAM, remained hopeful. "Our job is definitely far from over," he wrote. "We must now continue fighting and building power so we can come back stronger than ever!"

I am extremely disappointed in the House's decision. It wasn't the morally right thing to do. Higher education gives many young Americans the opportunity to escape endless, intergenerational poverty cycles and achieve financial stability as adults. We must never forget that our country was founded by immigrants hoping for better futures. Social mobility is one of the many things that make America so unique. We need to continue extending compassion and love to our society's most disadvantaged members and help them realize their dreams.

Expanding access to higher education to DREAM-ers has a number of social benefits as well. Poverty reduction is linked to better health outcomes, lower crime rates, and host of other benefits that improve quality of life. A more educated workforce is a strategic investment in our economy. What if the cure to cancer, the next generation of computer technology, or a cutting-edge method to combat climate change is in the mind of an undocumented student who cannot afford to receive an education? We need to move past the politics and be logical: if we want to compete in the rapidly changing world, we need to invest in our human capital.

Many opponents to expanding education to DREAM-ers argue that tax-payers pay for aid programs, and only children from tax-paying families should have access to these programs. This argument is extremely misguiding - believe it or not, undocumented immigrants pay taxes too. They pay income, sales, and property taxes at the local, state, and federal levels. In fact, a study showed that, in 2012, undocumented immigrants paid a total of $11.8 billion in taxes at the state and local levels alone. DREAM-ers, like all Americans, deserve access to the in-state tuition and state financial aid that their families help finance.

The battle in Connecticut is most definitely not over. Codognolla and his team have been fighting hard for years, and they're not going to stop anytime soon. Activists in all fifty states need to be proactive. As Codognolla stresses, until Washington can expand education access nationwide, we must fill in the gap at the state level. Undocumented students already dream big; it is our duty to give them the means to afford and achieve their dreams.