After years on the back burner, immigration is set to command more of Congress’s attention in the coming months, including several provisions important for higher education that are likely to be part of any proposed comprehensive legislation.
Immigration was mentioned only infrequently during the election. But the drubbing Republicans took among Latino voters led to speculation that both parties might be open to overhauling immigration this year. On Tuesday, President Obama will lay out his plan in a speech in Las Vegas.
The biggest questions at the heart of immigration reform -- how the nation’s immigration laws will be enforced, and whether the estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. without legal documentation will be given a path to citizenship -- affect colleges only tangentially. But any legislation that addresses those issues is also likely to include other measures with a direct impact on higher education.
The details of Obama’s proposal have yet to be revealed. A bipartisan group of senators are planning  an announcement of a separate, simultaneous push for reform. But advocates for higher education on Capitol Hill say it will almost certainly involve some version of the DREAM Act, legislation that aims to give undocumented young people a pathway to citizenship. Bills have already been introduced that would expand visas for highly educated immigrants, some of whom are employed by U.S. colleges. Another immigration issue, increasing the number of visas available to foreign graduates of American colleges and universities so that more can stay in the country after they finish their studies, has gained bipartisan support in recent months.
So while it’s unclear what the legislation will be, something is likely to happen, and soon. And while measures most important to higher education -- a path to citizenship for undocumented students and visas for highly educated workers -- are less controversial than other issues lawmakers will have to grapple with, they’re much more likely to be enacted as part of a comprehensive reform package than on their own.
“All of the indicators suggest that if this thing doesn’t fall apart on the basis of politics, there is really compelling reason to do a mid- to far-reaching immigration reform,” said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.
For the DREAM Act, it’s a reversal of fortune. A year ago, the bill seemed dead. Its last best hope for passage was in December 2010, the final days of Democratic control of both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives passed the bill, but in the Senate, the DREAM Act fell five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reintroduced the bill in 2011, but the House of Representatives, then firmly under Republican control, showed little appetite for immigration reform. In June 2012, as he criticized Congress for not acting on immigration and other issues, Obama issued a memorandum that gave young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to avoid deportation and get permits to work in the U.S.
That reprieve, known as deferred action, has changed the landscape for undocumented students. Unlike the DREAM Act, it didn’t have the power to offer those students an eventual path to citizenship. But deferred action dealt with many of the other issues -- in many ways normalizing the immigration status of undocumented immigrants under 30 who have been in the U.S. since before they were 16, who have been in the country for at least five years, and who either are in school, are high school graduates or are military veterans.
Since applications opened in August, 5,000 young undocumented immigrants have applied every day, said Michael Olivas, the director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston and an advocate for undocumented students, who worked with the Obama administration to develop the program. No eligible immigrants have been turned down.
“It’s a completely different world,” said Olivas, who said he’s been working to help undocumented college graduates obtain professional licensing that would not have been possible for them before deferred action.
Olivas said he believes the DREAM Act, after its past failures, can now happen only as part of comprehensive immigration reform, in part because passing the DREAM Act on its own now would be a concession that Congress couldn’t do more.
“The fact that there were still efforts to try and enact the DREAM Act could themselves be viewed as harmful to the larger, much more important, fundamental transformational issue about” comprehensive reform, Olivas said. On the other hand, he added, a comprehensive reform “is going to have a provision for either [deferred action] or DREAMers -- they’ll be in the front of the line. It’s unimaginable that they wouldn’t be.”
Higher education lobbyists say it makes little difference to them whether DREAM and other provisions are included in a comprehensive reform or pass on their own, as long as they pass. But, in part because Obama plans a comprehensive push, they find broader legislation to be more likely than not.
“We just want the DREAM Act to become law,” said Cynthia Littlefield, vice president for federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “I think in reality, it’s most probable that the DREAM Act would be rolled into an immigration reform.”
That reform will also address another issue with bipartisan support: expanding visas for highly skilled workers, especially in science, technology and math-related fields. During the presidential race, both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney called attention to the fact that many foreign-born students go to graduate school in the U.S. and would like to stay, but return home or go to other countries because not enough visas are available.
Colleges use some of those visas to hire faculty members and researchers. A Senate immigration bill, planned to be introduced this week, would lift the annual cap of 20,000 visas per year for foreign residents with advanced degrees earned in the United States; it would also give work authorization for the spouses of those visa-holders.
The visa change has enough momentum that it might be able to pass on its own, even without comprehensive reform, Olivas said. But Obama is likely to include a measure in whatever plan he proposes.
For undocumented students, deferred action may have eased their path to eventual citizenship, should the DREAM Act be passed. Students who received deferred action have already taken most of the steps they might have to take, including proving their length of residency, learning English and paying a fee, Olivas said. But while deferred action has made the path easier for DREAMers, it has also illuminated the other problems that comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to solve.
Work authorization and a path to citizenship are the heart of the DREAM Act. Other provisions, though, could be negotiation points as Congress takes up immigration: whether the young undocumented students will be eligible for federal financial aid or other benefits, for example. And other questions, also crucial if students want to go to college, are up to the states -- such as whether students will pay in-state tuition.
For advocates, that means DREAM has gone from an ultimate and sometimes distant-seeming goal to another piece in a large puzzle.
“All it would do would be to confer a pathway to citizenship to these kids,” Olivas said. “While that’s not nothing, of course, that’s not the end-all and the be-all.”