THE BLOG
05/17/2013 10:09 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

Making Cents Out of a DREAM

"All it takes is a dollar and a dream". That's just one of several slogans New York uses to sell lottery tickets throughout the state to fund public education. However in New York, when it comes to higher education, we here mean higher education for some, but definitely not all, of the public. Sadly, that's the reality for thousands of children of undocumented immigrants in our home state. The cherished dream of educational opportunity and financial security remains unattainable even though it would cost the average taxpayer less than the price of a single lotto ticket to fund - eighty seven cents to be exact.

Presently, New York only permits citizens of the United States or aliens admitted for permanent residence to qualify for tuition assistance programs. Which is to say, there are children who despite academic achievement and civic commitment don't qualify. Right now it doesn't matter if such a child maintains an A+ average throughout school, doesn't matter how many veteran hospitals or senior centers that child volunteers at, doesn't matter how many home runs or touchdowns he or she can score at the big game, and curiously, it doesn't even matter that that child begins each and every school day pledging alliance to the American flag. No, in the Empire State these things do not matter simply because that child is the child of undocumented immigrant parents and, by the way, was most likely brought here at a very early age without any say in the matter.

As I write this, the New York State Assembly is gearing up to bring The Development Relief & Education for Alien Minors Act or DREAM Act up for a vote, but not without controversy and sharp criticism from its opponents. Already I can hear and cringe at the debate that's coming this way.

The more popular criticism being: "Tax payers shouldn't have to fund immigrants who are here illegally and breaking the law." Somehow this argument to these folks seems fair game, but in reality is neither fair nor game. For starters, since when do we hold children and infants accountable for their parents alleged transgressions? Better yet, explain "unlawful border crossing" to a toddler and get back to me - I'd love to know how that works out. I imagine that very serious conversation ending with the kid handing you a box of crayons and some construction paper so you can make your very own green cards to hang on the refrigerator.

If vilifying children with a straight face isn't offensive enough, consider the subtle arrogance the opposition engages in when they espouse their concern and guardianship of "the tax payers" and "their" money. But exactly which tax payers are they so piously cherry picking and speaking of? Is it all of the tax payers or just some of the tax payers? After all, undocumented immigrants pay taxes just like everybody else. Yes, you read that right...fetch the smelling salts and don't tread on them because it's true: UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS ARE TAX PAYERS TOO! In fact, New York ranks within the top five states that benefit from tax revenue that's attributable to undocumented immigrant households. We can all rest easy now knowing that in the land of the free, the certainty of death and taxes knows not creed, national origin, height, weight or immigration status.

The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy calculates that undocumented immigrants accounted for $11.2 billion dollars of tax revenue in 2010. This includes sales tax, property tax (renter also) and of course income tax. Add to that another potential $329 billion to the economy from passage of a national DREAM Act and well, that's mucho dinero! I'd even bet my lotto tickets it's more than enough to ensure access to higher education for all children, and unlike gambling, is a sound investment opportunity with a high return to all of the state's tax payers.

For years, all children have been guaranteed a public school education from grades pre-K through high school irrespective of status. Additionally, undocumented students who qualify are already eligible to pay in-state tuition. So why stop there since expanding tuition assistance would be a boon to state revenue and our local economies? The return on the dollar (again, about eighty seven cents) is undeniable.

In addition to the overall enhancement of quality of life, there are also strong fiscal and economic benefits to the state when the work force is better educated. For example, a New Yorker with a bachelor's degree is apt to earn $25,000 more per year compared to someone with a high school diploma. Presently, the most a student can be awarded annually for TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) is $5,000, for a total of $20,000 in four years. Once a member of the work force, that person will be paying nearly $4,000 more per year in state and local taxes than a high school graduate. The same principle holds true for a student earning a two year degree who would earn about $10,000 more annually, and would then be contributing about $1,000 more in taxes. Do the math people and tell me we're not missing out on a huge revenue opportunity here!

Passage of the New York DREAM Act is supported overwhelmingly by a number of diverse organizations including groups such as the New York State Catholic Conference, UJA-Federation of New York, the American Jewish Committee NY, Churches United to Save and Heal, and the Arab American Association of New York; by organized labor including the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and 1199 SEIU, and by good government groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York Public Interest Group, the Urban Justice Center, and the Fund for Public Advocacy. The list goes on and on and on. In stark contrast, the opposition has pretty much been reduced to flimsy rhetoric and embarrassing borderline race baiting. While the state's Conservative Party website advocates for "significant" and "meaningful cuts" across the board to every program (no idea what that means) including School Aid, they are silent on the DREAM Act (oh boy, can't wait to hear from them now).

Perhaps the opposition's greatest shortcoming is the failure to specifically address the demonstrated economic benefits and moral righteousness of its passage, let alone explain to the rest of us exactly how expanding eligibility for tuition programs will take away assistance from citizens and nationals or magically derail Super-storm Sandy relief efforts. In his final State of the City Address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the arguments in opposition, "about as dumb a policy as I can think of." I couldn't agree more.

I like to think that one day very soon every kid in New York who wants to go on to higher education has that opportunity no matter their financial means or immigration status. Maybe one of these young New Yorkers will find the cure for cancer or Alzheimer's or AIDS. Maybe he or she will bring New York's nanotechnology initiatives to the next level of greatness. Maybe he or she will make us all proud by winning a Noble Peace Prize or Daytime Emmy. Maybe, just maybe..."Hey, you never know." (That's another New York lottery sales slogan!)