What the DREAM Acts Mean for Undocumented Students: Share Your Thoughts

May 15, 2012 at 5:25 am

In April, WMHT’s Public Affairs program “New York Now” reported on Yelky Ramos’ efforts to pass the New York State DREAM Act. Ramos came to the United States when she was 13-years-old. She was the valedictorian of her high school and is preparing to graduate from Baruch College with a B.A. in public affairs.

UPDATE: On June 15, President Barack Obama announced a radical policy shift on immigration, which in many ways works around congressional resistance to the federal DREAM Act. Obama’s executive order mandates an end to deportations of, and work permits for, undocumented immigrants under 30 years old, who came to the Untied States before they turned 16 and who have been in the country for at least five years. They must have no criminal record, be a high school graduate or have a GED, or be in school or have served in the military. The work permits will defer the threat of deportation for two years, with the possibility of extensions when they expire. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) says he intends to sue the Obama administration over the policy announcement.

The New York State DREAM Act bill, first introduced in March 2011, would allow undocumented immigrant students who meet certain requirements to receive state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funds to attend city and state colleges.

While the state bill would address student aid, the federal DREAM Act would provide undocumented youth a path to legal status through public service and allow students to attend college or enter military service. The act passed in the U.S. House in Dec. 2010 but failed in the Senate.

The bill was introduced by Senator Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Guillermo Linares (D-Manhattan). Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn all support the passage of the New York State DREAM Act.  Governor Andrew Cuomo has not taken a position on it but has said he supports the federal version.

Yelky Ramos is a 20-year-old undocumented Bronx resident who will graduate from Baruch College in May with a bachelor’s degree in public affairs. Yelky’s parents brought her to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 13, and she has not been able to attain citizenship. Last year, she began speaking publicly about her status as an activist for the New York State DREAM Act.

After Yelky graduates college this month, she hopes to go to graduate school and eventually become a public interest lawyer, but she says that will be difficult.

On May 2, the New York State Assembly passed a bill to establish a DREAM fund, through which people could make private contributions toward private scholarships for undocumented students. Three Republican Assembly members voted against it, claiming it encourages illegal immigration, while immigrant activists say the bill is an empty substitute for the real DREAM Act.

“In my opinion, the DREAM fund is just political games,” said Ramos. “What the DREAM fund technically does is create a bank account, but there’s not much detail about who is going to recover the money or who is going to fundraise.”

So far, 13 states have passed their own versions of the DREAM Act. To be eligible under New York’s version, someone would need to have:

  • Attended a New York high school for two years
  • Enrolled in a college or university in New York State
  • Meet the same requirements for TAP funds as everyone else

While many critics might be sympathetic to undocumented children who grew up in the U.S., they say their problem is that the bill would incentivize illegal border crossing.

“If you are a good parent south of the border right now, you look at this and say well, of course I want to go there, look at the benefits we are going to get,” Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-Suffolk) told the New York Daily News after the DREAM fund was passed, which he and DREAM Act opponents, as well as many DREAM Act supporters in the Assembly, see as the first step toward passing the more powerful bill.

The view that the act would encourage future illegal immigrants is what has prevented various federal versions of the DREAM Act from being passed since the first national DREAM Act was introduced in 2001. The federal version has more teeth than any of the state laws, however. It would grant permanent residency to undocumented students who:

  • Entered the country before they turned 16
  • Graduated high school or obtained their GED
  • Have no criminal record
  • Attend two years of college or two years of military service.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he supports the federal version, but in April he said of the state version, “You have to look at the immigration law federally and you have to look at the cost to the state. Obviously there would be a significant cost to the state. You want to make education as accessible and as affordable as you can, but then you run into a dollar and cents question.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not taken a position at the state version of the DREAM Act. He has said he supports the federal version. AP/Evan Agostini.

In April, a group of undocumented teens walked from New York City to Albany to pressure the governor and legislature to pass the state law.

Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor at City Journal, believes the federal DREAM Act would allow people to qualify for permanent residence, even if they had plead down a felony charge to a misdemeanor before they turned 18. Juvenile misdemeanor conviction records are sealed when someone turns 18, whereas felony juvenile convictions are publicly available throughout someone’s lifetime.

“My objection to the federal DREAM Act is that it is so broadly written that the goal is to extend amnesty as widely as possible, as opposed to rewarding upstanding and responsible behavior on part of young juvenile aliens,” said MacDonald, who also feels the educational requirements are too lax, since they don’t mandate a minimum high school or college GPA.

MacDonald said she’s more comfortable with a version of the federal DREAM Act recently introduced by U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio (R-Florida), which would offer non-immigrant visas to young undocumented immigrants who enroll in college, join the military or work and meet similar conditions to the Democrats’ DREAM Act.

Many immigrant rights activists say it would create a caste of second class citizens, rather than helping undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children.

“It’s not even temporary visas. It’s just non-immigrant status and that’s not event permanent status,” said Ramos. Immigrant visas, or green cards, provide a path to permanent citizenship, but non-immigrant visas only allow for temporary stays.

Regarding the critics’ fears that the original version of the federal DREAM Act would allow people with criminal records to attain citizenship, Ramos said that if those critics are really concerned they should create more criteria for what constitutes “good moral character,” as the bill puts the requirement.

The elephant in the room is whether any version of the DREAM Act will encourage more illegal border crossing. Due to the economic recession and strict immigration laws in states like Arizona and Alabama, for the first time in over two decades, more immigrants from Mexico are leaving the U.S. than arriving, reported the New York Times.

There has not been a major U.S. immigration reform since 1986, when amnesty was granted to millions of undocumented people, and under the Obama administration, an estimated 400,000 people have been deported annually.

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