WASHINGTON -- The timing couldn’t have been much better for a group of scholars and administrators advocating for a pipeline to legal status for undocumented college students to meet here.
Less than a week ago, Arizona’s governor signed into law a controversial measure  taking aim at illegal immigrants, drawing ire from President Obama and some members of Congress. This week, news reports  have suggested that Congressional Democrats are pushing ahead to take up immigration reform legislation, which would most likely include measures aimed at putting students who spend at least two years in college on a path to permanent residency.
It was with this sense that such change might finally be in the offing, after close to a decade of false starts, that the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, based at the University of Michigan, and the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance convened for “Challenges and Opportunities: Future Pathways Towards Immigration and Higher Education,” a three-day conference designed to build support for policies aimed at helping college students who are also undocumented residents of the United States.
Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, said that expanding and ensuring access for immigrants, legal and illegal, is a key part of his organization’s “big goal,” for 60 percent of Americans to have degrees or credentials by 2025. “We will certainly fail to reach that big goal if we don’t see these students as essential to our efforts,” he said.
“Education empowers immigrants, and we must ensure that that power is turned on,” he said. “Economic growth is reliant on influxes of immigrants.” Merisotis also announced that his organization would be sponsoring a series of meetings on immigrants and education with the National Forum. The first will be in Albuquerque in July and the series will culminate in early 2011 at Lumina’s headquarters in Indianapolis.
The debate at the conference, though, was largely one-sided, with no one openly opposing the expansion of rights to illegal immigrants. Nationwide, and in Congress, there is plenty of resistance to efforts that appear to cost American citizens jobs or tax dollars or that stir racial and nationalistic fears.
“This is not going to be easy, this is not a done deal,” said Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, in a speech Monday night. “To move forward with the process is something the president is committed to doing.”
Sepulveda was referring in part to broad-based immigration reform, but also to efforts to put undocumented high school graduates on a path to permanent residency if they spent at least two years in college or the military -- the key provision of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which Congress  first considered in 2001 .
Illegal immigrants can often get through high school without having to tackle their residency status. But when it comes to college admissions -- particularly at public institutions -- issues of residency come into play and threaten not only students’ access to education, but also to their ability to stay in the United States.
Barmak Nassirian, associate director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that illegal immigrants have been “a near constant conversation at our meetings and every venue I’ve been to for the last decade or so.”
While admissions officers “know how to assess every applicant on merit, the wall that they hit is of establishing residency,” first for the purposes of less stringent admissions requirements at public institutions and then for in-state tuition. When students without legal documentation of their residency can’t qualify for in-state tuition despite having graduated from high school there and having paid taxes there, “we are price discriminating against them.”
Fewer than a dozen states have laws that explicitly make some undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition, though the laws in California, Nebraska and Texas are currently being challenged in court. In other states, institutions can make their own decisions  on the issue .
Throughout discussions Monday night and Tuesday, panelists and attendees, including immigration lawyers, university administrators, researchers and students, held out hope that comprehensive immigration reform and, in particular, the DREAM Act (which, as of now, seems coupled to broader reform) will make it through Congress before November’s elections.
One sign of hope for them was a letter sent last week  to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), in which the two senators asked that the department grant DREAM Act-eligible students “deferred action” status to stay in the United States legally until the bill passes.
But neither students nor the meeting’s participants can sit idly by, waiting for legislation to pass, said John C. Burkhardt, the forum’s director and a professor of higher education at Michigan. “The DREAM Act may or may not happen,” he said. “What are you doing to create the opportunities that you’re describing” as being possible once the measures become law?
During a discussion on the potential for policy change, Cindy Bank, assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Washington office, said the DREAM Act hasn’t been her priority -- something immigration reform advocates on her campus and others might not realize. “While we include the DREAM Act in our conversations on comprehensive immigration reform … my time has been … used mainly on highly-skilled immigration issues,” like H1-B visas and facilitating visas for international students and scholars.
Josh Bernstein, immigration director for the Service Employees International Union, encouraged administrators and faculty to target their own legislators by “find[ing] a student to be emblematic” of the need for immigration reform.
Justin Draeger, vice president for public policy at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the same in a discussion on how the national higher education associations could work in favor of immigrants. “It’s at the institutional level, putting pressure on individual members of Congress, that is always done locally.”