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State Dream Acts Offer Important Opportunities to Undocumented Students

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As thousands of undocumented immigrant students in California and Illinois enter and return to college this fall, they will have new hope about their futures because of legislation providing them access to privately-funded college tuition assistance passed earlier this summer in both states. While these state measures do not guarantee a pathway to legalization for their recipients, they do help to address financial needs for higher education -- presently, while more than 65 percent of all American students receive some form of financial aid, undocumented immigrant students are ineligible for federal or state financial assistance.

Nevertheless, many ask, why prepare these young people for futures they cannot legally attain?
I recently completed a study, published in the current issue of the American Sociological Review, based on nearly 5 years of research on the adult experiences of undocumented youngsters who have lived in the United States since childhood. The findings are sobering.

Many of the young adults in my study had successfully finished four-year college degrees, and a handful had actually gone on to graduate programs. However, none of those who remained undocumented was employed in an occupation matching his or her educational training. In fact, many of them were toiling in low-wage work -- in the very jobs that employ lesser skilled adult immigrants.

For these young people, adult realities are frightening. As they advance through school, their teachers encourage them to excel in their studies, stressing that if they dream boldly enough; with hard work they can achieve their goals. For decades researchers have concurred, stressing the positive relationship between education and material success after school. However, our present immigration system undermines their hard work. Instead of the achieving the American Dream, these young people wake up to a nightmare.

But my research also points to a silver lining. Among the young adults in my study, those who were afforded critical resources in high school, clear and affordable pathways to college, and lessened financial responsibilities at home excelled in school and lessened many of the negative aspects of undocumented status.

Still many ask, what good is all of this if they are not able to move into good jobs after graduation?

A few years ago, I met a young woman named Rosalba. At 26 years of age, she had successfully completed Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Mathematics. She had also completed all of the requirements for a teaching credential. She was undocumented and had been waiting for more than 12 years to adjust her status. On Valentine's Day the next year, she received a work permit in the mail. Her residency card arrived two weeks later. Having benefited from caring mentors throughout school, she sent out an e-mail to more than a dozen of her closest supporters informing them of her change in status. By the end of the week, she had job offers from 3 different schools.

Rosalba is now doing what she loves, teaching high school math.

Presently, most undocumented youth and young adults do not have foreseeable paths to legalization. Nevertheless, Rosalba's story is instructive. Her years of schooling and accumulated degrees, when matched with the ability to use them, provided her important job opportunities.

There are presently 2.1 million undocumented children and young adults in the United States waiting for the same opportunity. While it is uncertain when and if the federal Dream Act will pass, the support for it has grown over the years. Last year's bi-partisan approval by the House was preceded by a long list of endorsements from higher education, business, and labor communities, as well as support from scores of city councils across the country.

As the second half of the California Dream Act, AB 131, sits on his desk California Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to make an important investment in the future of his state while sending a powerful message to the American Congress. In doing so, he can demonstrate to Washington that this is an important issue that cannot wait any longer. These young people are now coming of age in significant numbers, and it makes more sense for them to be educated and contributing to pressing workforce needs in their states.

The California and Illinois Dream Acts provide an important boost to undocumented immigrant youngsters in their states who might otherwise find themselves making early entries into the low wage labor market -- a boost that will assist them to pursue higher education and to ready themselves to make immediate contributions should Congress find that it is in the best interest of this great nation, to benefit from them.