Despite State Immigration Reforms, We Still Need a Federal DREAM Act

Although immigration reform has consistently been an issue for presidential campaigns and in Congress for the past decade, the federal government has yet to address the issue in any serious way. Several senators have refused to pass any reform that is not comprehensive in nature (i.e. border security and path towards citizenship). This is primarily why the DREAM Act has not passed into law since it was first introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). 

State legislatures have therefore stepped up to the plate to deal with their immigration issues on the state level. To date, 11 states have passed their versions of the DREAM Act, providing undocumented students with the opportunity to attend college on in-state tuition along with some financial assistance. 

While strides have been made on the state level to incorporate undocumented immigrants into higher education institutions, there are several reasons why we need immigration reform on a federal level to fully benefit well-deserving undocumented youth.

First, without a doubt, financial aid and in-state tuition will make college education more attainable, but states still lack the power to confer legal status on undocumented immigrants. What becomes of these students after they have received college degrees but cannot apply their education to a profitable career?  For example, a provision in New York State’s version of the DREAM Act (S. 4179) if passed, will grant New York State work authorization to some 345,000 undocumented students residing in the state.  Although this would enable them to seek employment, they would still be restricted to working only in New York State, thus limiting their ability to explore employment opportunities in other states.

Second, with no access to employment, undocumented students are faced with two choices – remain in the states and take on under-the-table-jobs or return to their home country. Regardless of the options they choose, state DREAM Acts that focus solely on education accessibility could potentially be wasted resources for students who cannot contribute their talents and education in bettering our economy afterwards. In the case that state DREAM Act beneficiaries take on low-paying jobs well under their qualifications, this would still be a loss, in that their income would be less taxable than it would have been if they were authorized to work legally. 

Lastly, most state versions of the DREAM Act induce false hope. For example, the California DREAM Act (AB 130), passed last month and has been celebrated by the pro-immigrant community as a step forward in addressing immigration reform in the state. However, it is also important to point out that although AB 130 could potentially make higher education a reality for many, the law also provides that undocumented students would not be eligible to apply or receive any Competitive Cal Grant unless funding remains available after all California resident students have received Competitive Awards. Thus, the law does not place California’s undocumented students on a level playing field in competing for financial assistance with their American counterparts. Instead it puts them under a second priority status where funds would only be available after California residents have been served. Given the state of California’s ailing coffers, one can only imagine the limited amount of resources designated for education.

Whether political posturing or a genuine attempt to bring undocumented students out from the shadows, state versions of the DREAM Act cannot benefit students nor the state itself in the long-run because recipients still cannot work legally in the U.S. The main beneficiaries of state-sponsored immigration bills are universities who would enjoy an increase in school revenues as students who would normally not attend college start to pay tuition. 

Therefore, immigration reform that would be advantageous to both the U.S. economy and to undocumented youth must be pursued on the federal level since this is the only entity with the power to confer legal status to undocumented immigrants.

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