I participated in a quick media call Friday morning with U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan who is making a last-ditch effort to persuade the Senate to pass the DREAM Act when it votes today. Duncan called it an historical vote and said he was hopeful that the bill will pass.
The Senate, in an unusual Saturday session, is taking up two controversial bills today, the DREAM Act, which is being debated now, and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
Duncan’s call with reporters was part of an overall White House push this week for DREAM Act passage. The House passed the act last week, a vote that Duncan said shifted the momentum in favor of the controversial legislation that creates a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.
It applies to illegal immigrants who entered the United States before their 16th birthday. To qualify, they must graduate from high school, enter college or into the military, and stay out of trouble.
The DREAM Act was written by both Republicans and Democrats. Saying he has made a number of calls to senators, Duncan argued that the DREAM Act is “important to our nation” and “a very personal battle” because of the undocumented students he met while CEO of the Chicago public schools. In fact, he said he and his wife created a small scholarship fund for such students who now face many obstacles in affording college.
“The door of opportunity was basically shut to them,” he said. “It was devastating to see those dreams go away. These are young people who have done everything right, who have played by all the rules.”
Duncan said the act would affect 65,000 high school graduates each year. “To have their energy, ingenuity and entrepreneurship unleashed first through the chance to go to college and then in the workforce will not just change the fortunes of them and their families in their communities but will be a tremendous benefit to the country. It is not just the right thing for the 65,000 students, it is the right thing to do for our country. ”
The act faces opposition because of the costs it may entail and its access to U.S. citizenship for children brought here illegally. A report issued by the Center for Immigration Studies states, “Given the low income of illegal immigrants, most can be expected to attend state schools, with a cost to taxpayers in the billions of dollars. As both funds and slots are limited at state universities and community colleges, the act may reduce the educational opportunities available to U.S. citizens.”
The center contends that “1.03 million illegal immigrants will eventually enroll in public institutions (state universities or community colleges) as a result of the DREAM Act. That is, they met the residence and age requirements of the act, have graduated high school, or will do so, and will come forward.On average each illegal immigrant who attends a public institution will receive a tuition subsidy from taxpayers of nearly $6,000 for each year he or she attends for total cost of $6.2 billion a year, not including other forms of financial assistance that they may also receive.”
A close vote is expected this morning in the Senate.
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog