By Barbara Borgese, recent graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University
On the night of the November 6th, about 11 million DREAMers and their supporters anxiously awaited the results of the Presidential election. Their fate in the United States – whether they will be able to pursue higher education, build a career and a have future in this country – largely depends on the decisions that our political leaders in Washington will have to make in the months to come. With President Obama’s reelection, the DREAM Act and the policy directive, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA), two important acts to advance immigrants’ rights in this country, will continue to be endorsed by the administration.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is a bi-partisan legislative proposal that has been stalled in the Senate for a decade. In December 2010, after passing in the House of Representatives, it failed to pass in the Senate due to a Republican filibuster. Should this bill become law, it would allow undocumented students who were brought to this country as children to attend college, join the military, work legally and have a pathway to citizenship. This legislation, no doubt, would change the lives of millions of youth across the country. Maria* is one of these individuals for whom the DREAM Act is vitally important.
Maria is one of the approximately 4,550 undocumented students who graduated from a New York high school last year (country-wide, there are approximately 65,000 undocumented high school graduates every year). At age 10, Maria entered the US with her mother, fleeing gang violence and poverty in Honduras, to seek a better life in this country. Bright-eyed and fiercely determined to become a successful American, she has studied relentlessly to master a new language and culture. Her hard work paid off. This past June, she graduated at the top of her high school class and was awarded a full scholarship from a private university. But Maria is one of the few lucky ones. Only 5-10% of undocumented students pursue a college education due to the barriers they face. And those who do attend college are then excluded from lawful employment after graduation.
Even though Plyer vs. Doe (1982) established the right to education for all – stating that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to free elementary and secondary education, federal law bars undocumented students from accessing federal financial aid for higher education. These students are also ineligible for most scholarships and loans. In practice, this situation prevents undocumented students, most of which live in low-income households, from going to college. In a knowledge-based economy like the USA’s, does providing free K-12 education – while de facto limiting college access – really ensure the right to education for all?
In substance, the schooling of these youth – and the tax dollars spent on it – is deprived of any further educational and economic purpose. In fact, these DREAMers – who, as Obama said, “are American in every single way but one: on paper” – can neither access college funding nor work legally in a country they call home. As a result, with limited to no prospects for the future, many end up dropping out of school and accepting jobs for sub-minimum wages, subjecting themselves to economic exploitation and further human rights violations. This situation has also impacted the emotional and mental health of these youth, causing higher depression and suicide rates among undocumented adolescents – who reported feeling hopeless and resentful.
Speech by President Obama, June 15, 2012
While the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the United States is a signatory nation, provides that education must be “directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity,” that it should “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society” and that “higher education should be made equally accessible to all,” the reality of young undocumented immigrants in the United States today is dire – so much so that even the fundamental right to health of this group is being greatly jeopardized.
Yet, the data shows that providing undocumented students with access to educational financial aid is not just a human rights issue but an economic one, as well. According to the US Census Bureau, “those who obtain a Bachelor’s degree earn $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.” Despite this difference in potential earnings, undocumented workers still contribute to the states’ revenue: in 2010, undocumented workers in New York paid $662.4 million in taxes. Furthermore, the National Skills Coalition reports that New York is facing a shortage of skilled workers: about 46% of jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a Bachelor’s degree; and only 39% of workers had the skills to fill these positions in 2009. Providing undocumented students with access to financial aid for higher education would place them in a position to fill this shortage, thus contributing to the states’ and country’s economic growth.
Today, the New York DREAM Act and the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) are providing some hope and relief. The former is a bill that, if passed, would allow undocumented youth meeting certain eligibility requirements to have access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program; the latter, introduced by President Obama in June 2011, allows DREAMers to work legally in the United States. Specifically, the New York DREAM Act is a state version of the federal DREAM Act with the notable difference that it does not provide a pathway to citizenship. Texas, New Mexico and California have already passed state-level DREAM Acts. The New York DREAM Act has received the endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg, CUNY, SUNY and several private colleges.
DACA, on the other hand, allows youth with no criminal record who entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visa as of June 15, 2012 to request a 2-year grace period during which time they would not be deported but, instead, could apply for a work permit. These youth would not accrue unlawful presence in the US and could receive state-funded Medicaid or Family/Child Health Plus, as well as welfare through the Safety Net program, if otherwise eligible. However, there are cons to DACA: the applicants are making themselves known to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Therefore, if DHS finds them to be of high priority for deportation, they may be placed in removal proceedings. Also, there is no guarantee that the program will continue in the future since it is not a bi-partisan proposal like the DREAM Act but, instead, heavily depends on the political party in office. Had Romney become president, DACA would have been halted.
In sum, while DACA has provided DREAMers with renewed hope for the future, it is still not enough. The 2012 election was a wake-up call: both Republicans and Democrats have understood that immigration reform can no longer wait. There are millions of youth who can no longer wait for their voices to be heard.
To support the passage of the New York DREAM Act and make education accessible to all, go to: http://action.dreamactivist.org/nydreamact/. For more ways to take action: http://action.dreamactivist.org/movedream/.
Barbara Borgese has worked on human rights education with a particular focus on the rights of immigrants and children in Italy, France and the USA for the past seven years. She is a graduate of SIPA where she concentrated in Human Rights. She also holds an M.S. Ed. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).