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Documentation for the Undocumented?

May 21, 2007

As Marie Nazareth Gonzales puts it, “Life in limbo is no way to live.” A junior at Westminster College in Missouri and a Costa Rican who came to the United States at the age of 5, Gonzales is living here on borrowed time. Her parents were deported in 2005, and her own deportation has now been deferred three times, each deferral good for one year. “Last month, when they gave me until June of 2008, they told me it would be the last renewal. If the DREAM [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors] Act doesn’t pass by then, I will have to leave,” Gonzales told the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law during a hearing on undocumented student issues Friday morning.

“My life since April of 2002 can be easily compared to a roller coaster,” Gonzales said. “There have been times when I have felt like I was on top of the world, living out mine and my parents’ dream of being a successful young woman in her college career, only to be brought down by the realization that at any moment it can be taken away.”

The plight of undocumented college students attracted virtually unprecedented attention in Congress last week, when Democratic and Republican Senate leaders, with President Bush’s backing, announced a comprehensive immigration reform package that would include a DREAM Act provision providing a path to permanent residency for college students and military personnel under 30 who came to the country illegally as children. Passage of the Senate plan -- already derided as an amnesty bill -- is in no way a sure thing. Still, advocates for undocumented students say they have good reason to be hopeful.

“This seems to be the most optimism that we’ve been allowed to have in quite some time, certainly in the seven years that I’ve been working on this issue,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He cited not only the bipartisan Senate plan but also the willingness of the House subcommittee to hold a hearing on undocumented students Friday. That same hearing, Hawkins said, never would have happened even one year ago (when Republicans were in control).

“I don’t want to jinx ourselves, but if you have [the support of] the administration, a bipartisan agreement in the Senate and a committee in the House that seems willing to take this on, in addition to some very compelling testimony from students this morning, I have to feel that the outlook is good, certainly better than it has been in some time,” Hawkins said Friday afternoon. He added that he thinks the Senate plan will spur the House to come up with a package of its own to send to the floor by summer.

The Senate plan is deliberately broad in scope, offering avenues toward permanent legal status for an estimated 12 million undocumented workers; enhancing border security; stepping up the burden on employers to verify employee work eligibility; creating a temporary worker program with a 400,000-person cap; and establishing a point-based merit system in which would-be permanent residents earn preferential status based on such factors as English ability, level of schooling (with extra points for training in science, math and technology); a job offer in a high-demand field, work experience and family ties.

Under the plan, many undocumented college students would be immediately eligible for a probationary Z visa, and, after three years (less than the time period for other applicants), a green card. Currently, college students present in the country illegally -- who, their advocates like to point out, often came here as very young children and played no role in the decision to come to the United States -- have no clear path to citizenship. They face a host of barriers in obtaining their educations: ineligibility for federal financial aid; higher, out-of-state or even international student tuition rates at some public institutions; an inability to work part-time; and a lack of motivation associated with the knowledge that, without the opportunity to obtain legal status, they might not be able to find employment in their degree field.

“They cannot even legally drive themselves to their college classes, a burden for those who must live with their parents in order to afford and attend college,” Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said at last week’s House subcommittee hearing.

The Senate proposal also would remove some of the teeth of a 1996 federal law some states have interpreted as restricting the eligibility of undocumented students to obtain in-state tuition status (now extended to illegal immigrants who can establish domicile in 10 states regardless). Under the plan, states could clearly allow students with Z visas to pay in-state tuition rates, and affected students would also be eligible for federal loans and work study, but not Pell Grants. Yet, advocates stress that the plan is still in proposal phase, and that details are still fluid.

“Both God and the devil are in the details,” said Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance.

The in-state tuition question came up repeatedly during Friday’s subcommittee hearing, with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the ranking member, pressing the student and young alumni witnesses to explain why they should get to pay in-state tuition while an out-of-state U.S. citizen cannot. “I ask you to reconcile this from a moral perspective,” King said to Gonzales (who answered that, though she attends a private institution, she considers herself to be a Missourian who has contributed to her community, as opposed to someone who “just moved in”).

“Often we legislate by anecdote,” Representative King said. “My heart goes out to all those who aren’t in control of their destiny ... but by the same token, the United States needs to be in control of its own destiny.” Without the ability to look people in the eye and send them home, King said, how can the country claim to have a border, or an immigration policy? “If we take too many passengers, the ship sinks. If we take too many down in steerage or up in the stateroom, for that matter, we won’t be able to navigate.”

Kris W. Kobach, senior counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute and a professor of law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, also stressed the unfairness in rewarding illegal activity and thereby penalizing those who pursue the proper channels. The message being sent, he said at the hearing, is, "If you go through the hoops and go through the bureaucratic process, which is admittedly difficult to do, we will penalize you."

Yet, most of the subcommittee members Friday seemed supportive of rewriting immigration law for the benefit of undocumented students, with the chair, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.), calling it "one area that both Democrats and Republicans feel need to be fixed." Rep., Howard L. Berman (D.-Calif.), an author of the DREAM Act, which has sat stalled in Congress for several years now but has taken on some new life in the bipartisan Senate plan, specifically took issue with King’s disparagement of the idea of “legislating by anecdote.”

“The day that the 535 people here divorce themselves from the stories of real people governed by our laws and our policies,” Rep. Berman said, “is a day we need to close this institution down.”

 

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