UPDATE: Today, a state committee recommended to the Georgia Board of Regents that illegal immigrants be barred from attending the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and any other public college that doesn’t have the room to admit all qualified applicants. The committee also recommended that all Georgia colleges verify every admitted student seeking in-state tuition to determine if the student is legally in the country. Read more here.
The best way to judge a nation is to examine how it treats its children and that means all children, even those whose parents arrived by boat or border crossing.
Our country loses when we enact immigration policies that deny educational opportunities to children to punish their parents. Every educated American is a boon to our economy, our health and our future. My own grandparents were legal immigrants from Italy who eked out a living. Yet, all their grandchildren are college educated, home-owning, taxpaying citizens. We now have Wall Street traders, doctors, corporate lawyers, architects and teachers on the family tree.
And that evolution owes to one thing: Higher education.
Today, I participated in a conference call about the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors or Dream Act, which broadens access to higher education for immigrant children and puts them on a path to citizenship. The Senate could vote on the bill this week, although it is attached to the Defense Authorization bill, which has run into problems today.
While the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that illegal immigrants are entitled to a public school education, nothing in the ruling addresses their college status. Now, states have the power to determine whether or not to admit illegal aliens into college and what to charge them.
Georgia law requires illegal immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition. But there is an effort under way to bar these students from public colleges, growing out of the high-profile case of a Kennesaw State University student whose traffic stop sparked a firestorm when it was revealed she was paying in-state tuition.
The Dream Act grants conditional status for six years to undocumented students who arrived in this country before age 16, lived here at least five consecutive years, graduated high school and are of good moral character.
During that six years, the student would have to graduate from a two-year community college or complete at least two years of a four-year degree, or serve in the U.S. military to qualify to apply for permanent resident status. (These students could not receive federal higher education grants, and states could still set college tuition higher for them.)
“It represents a path out of poverty and a path to success. It is an investment our country should make for all children,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
“I believe it is not only the right thing to do for these students, it is also the right thing to do for our country,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was on the call. “In this economy, we need everyone trained and prepared. These children were brought here by their parents, often as infants without making any choice of their own. It will stop punishing people for the accidental circumstances of their birth. America is the only country they know. They have done exactly what was asked of them in their schools. Our country needs the benefit of their skills, their talents and their passion.”
The Dream Act has passed twice out of the Senate judiciary committee and passed the full Senate in 2006 with the support of 11 Republicans, all of whom remain in office, said Duncan, pledging his backing and that of President Obama to its passage. If passed, the act would immediately impact 726,000 students, 100,000 of whom live in Arizona.
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said he has met hundreds of undocumented students in his state and has come to admire their drive and their abilities. Why is America hiring talent abroad while denying an education to bright children within its own communities, he said.
“You want to tap into that talent. My own view of the fairness doctrine is that high achievement, particularly by children, ought to be recognized, regardless of the national political debate,” he said. “We are talking about children and we are talking about fairness. Appallingly, we have allowed the mistreatment of children to go on for political gain.”
Crow said Dream Act passage by Congress “would send a tremendous signal that individuals with talent who have worked their way into successful pathways are now pulled out of the bigger immigration debate and their lives can move forward while immigration issues are resolved over the longer term.”
John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, echoed his Arizona colleague’s comments: “These are young people who aren’t here by their own choice. They have played by our rules. They have succeeded by our rules. For everything we stand for as a people….for the deepest values we stand for…they should be able to continue their development in this country.”
Myrtle Dorsey, chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College and chair-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges, said many of these students do not realize they are undocumented until they apply to college. “They have English as their first language. They are actively part of the fabric of this country. They have succeeded in school,” she said.
One such student is Diana Rebolledo, 20, of Michigan. Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 9, and she became a varsity soccer player, a band member and honor student in high school. “I never questioned my father’s decision,” she said. “He wanted to give us a better life. In my home country, that was not an option.”
(For a great story on a local student in this same situation, please read Laura Diamond’s piece on Miriam Torres.)
So, she worked as hard as her parents. But while her high school classmates talked about college in their senior year, Rebolledo remained silent, not wanting to reveal that as an undocumented student, she could not afford college since she was not eligible for aid and would be required to pay much higher tuition because of her illegal status.
After graduating high school, working and saving her money, she is now in community college and part of the One Michigan student campaign to pass the Dream Act. (The Georgia student advocacy group is called the Georgia Dreamers.)
What sense does it make to hold back ambitious young people like Diana Rebolledo, who wants to be a teacher? She cannot be blamed for coming to America 11 years ago. Her parents came here for the same reasons as my grandparents, to create a better life for their children. Yes, my grandparents immigrated legally, but they had an ocean between them and America. They couldn’t pack their bags and walk to a new beginning.
I wonder how many desperate parents would cross a border illegally to feed their starving children?
I would. And I bet most of you would, too.