California Dream Act Gives Undocumented Students Fair Chance

The California Dream Act, signed into law this year by Governor Jerry Brown, is to be celebrated not only as a brilliant investment in the education and economic future of the state, but also as a step forward in acknowledging the legitimacy of an entire generation of immigrant Americans.

Each year, California high schools graduate an estimated 25,000 undocumented students. These young graduates are barred from applying for jobs or federal loans as a means of paying for college because they are illegal immigrants. The Dream Act allows students who fulfill the necessary criteria – including proof that they are already undergoing the process to legalize their status – the opportunity to apply for financial aid. In doing so, this legislation strengthens California’s economy and benefits communities by lifting young undocumented students out of the shadows and into mainstream America.

This two-part bill, which allows undocumented students access to private and state scholarship funding toward higher education, has elicited both tremendous praise and vehement criticism.

Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman argues, “While billions of dollars are being slashed from needed programs, while state universities and colleges are cutting programs and admission, and while there is an insufficient amount of government aid available to help legal residents pay for college, the legislature continues to work overtime to find new benefits they can bestow on illegal aliens.”

This argument is both misguided and shortsighted. The California Department of Finance estimates that only 1% of Cal Grants, the state’s student financial aid program, will be affected by Dream Act applicants. Moreover, the costs incurred by taxpayers will ultimately bring profitable returns for California. As the bills’ sponsor Assemblyman Gill Cedillo of Los Angeles argues, “The legislation will make California more competitive in the global economy by educating a workforce that has already shown resilience and leadership.”

It is in California’s best interest to keep talented, educated young people in state.

Opponents also argue that the Dream Act rewards queue-jumpers, that is, families that enter this country illegally and enroll children in public schools. Critics claim the policy is unfair to immigrants who have taken on the burden of applying for legal status.

However, it is equally unfair to punish children for the offenses of their parents. As Assemblyman Cedillo argues, “After having invested 12 years in the high school education of these young men and women, who are here through no fault of their own, it’s the smartest thing for us to do to permit these students to get scholarships and be treated like every other student.”

There is another reason to support the Dream Act: these students are Americans. They are what the Immigration Policy Center calls the 1.5 generation: “Any (first generation) immigrants brought to the United States at a young age who were largely raised in this country and therefore share much in common with second-generation Americans. These students are culturally American, growing up here and often having little attachment to their country of birth. They tend to be bicultural and fluent in English."

In other words, they are Americans in every way but on paper. We owe them the opportunities and promise of America, which includes the right to an education.

The passage of the California Dream Act should be heralded as an imperative and proud step forward for advancing the higher education and the integration of the state’s immigrant population.

Photo Credit: longislandwins

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Maria Teresa Vanikiotis

Maria is currently earning a J.D. at Fordham University School of Law in New York City. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics where she earned a master's degree in Global Politics. Maria is a freelance writer who has traveled throughout Asia, Europe and the MENA region covering political and social issues in contemporary society.

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