WASHINGTON – The College Board on Tuesday released a policy report advocating for passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill, which would provide a route to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and pursue at least two years of college or military service, was first proposed in Congress in 2001.
"We've never been more optimistic about the prospects for the DREAM Act than we are in 2009," said Joseph Zogby, chief counsel to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader and the bill's sponsor.
"What we have seen over the years is a slow but steady building of support for the DREAM Act."
"Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students," written by Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's School of Social Work, estimates that the DREAM Act would immediately benefit 360,000 undocumented high school graduates and offer an incentive for college for another 715,000 children, aged 5 to 17.
The report argues that undocumented students "are currently trapped in a legal paradox. They have the right to a primary and secondary education [under the 1982 Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe] and are generally allowed to go on to college, but their economic and social mobility is severely restricted due to their undocumented status."
"Besides the moral and humanitarian reasons for opening the door to college for these students, there are also strong economic arguments, such as ensuring that the investment already made in the K-12 education of these students is realized and that the country benefits from the rich potential of productive, educated, and U.S.-trained workers."
"Really, these students are a national resource," Gonzales said during a press briefing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
He added: "What we're talking about, really, is a civil rights issue and it's probably the most important civil rights issue of our time."
Also under the DREAM Act, undocumented students eligible for conditional permanent resident status could benefit from federal loans and work study (but not grants) and lower in-state tuition rates.
Currently, 10 states have laws allowing undocumented students to qualify for resident tuition rates, and Gonzales writes that their experiences do not bear out a common criticism of the DREAM Act -- that it would displace U.S. citizens and legal residents from colleges.
Those 10 states -- which include states with large immigrant populations like California, New Mexico and Texas -- have not seen "a large influx of new immigrant students. ... In fact, these measures tend to increase school revenues by bringing in tuition from students who otherwise would not be in college," the report argues. In Texas in 2004, for instance, "the total number of students paying in-state tuition under the new law amounted to only 0.36 percent of the 1,054,586 students attending public colleges and universities in Texas. This is evidence that expanding tuition eligibility to undocumented students is significant to their advancement while having little effect on other student groups."
Yet, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which opposes the DREAM Act, "What you logically know, though, is one of these kids gets into a state university, there's somebody else's kid who's not getting in there. We know that for a fact. The only difference is we don't know who that kid is; you can't put their picture in the paper."
He added: "When did it become a civil right to benefit from your parents having broken the law and having everybody else subsidize your education? This is not a civil right. Very often, the supporters of the DREAM Act try to frame it [by saying that] children should not be punished for the sins of their parents, as if somehow the absence of a benefit or a reward is the same thing as a punishment. It's not."
Of the bill's prospects, "I certainly think they're going to make another run at it," Mehlman said. "But given the economic circumstances that the country finds itself in ... how do you justify subsidizing the college educations of illegal aliens?"
The latest version of the DREAM Act was introduced in the 111th Congress in March. Last time around, in a 52-44 Senate floor vote on the measure in 2007, supporters fell short of the 60 votes needed.
"We're very confident, very optimistic, that with the new composition of the Senate, we'll be able to reach 60 votes," Zogby said -- pointing, too, to support for the DREAM Act from President Obama. The president has indicated a desire to push for immigration reform this year, as The New York Times has reported.
In terms of strategies for pushing the DREAM Act through Congress, Zogby said that the first priority is to include it within comprehensive immigration reform legislation. "If for some reason there's a decision not to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform, we'll consider other options," he said.