Arizona became the political epicenter of the immigration debate this year after passing the country’s toughest crackdown on illegal aliens. Amid the fallout, national and international politicians denounced local officials. Sports leagues, whole cities and civil rights groups threatened boycotts. And the U.S. Department of Justice settled in to sue.
Less well known is that one bastion of the now infamous Southwestern state — its largest public university — has been leading the call for a new national policy in favor of some undocumented immigrants: children, brought here unwittingly by their parents, who often don’t discover they’re illegal until it comes time to apply for college. (Documented immigrants, those whose parents became citizens but they for some reason didn’t, need not apply.)
“It’s appalling that we have allowed the mistreatment of young people to go on in the United States for political gain,” Arizona State University President Michael Crow said this week on a conference call organized by backers of a bill that would grant such students new legal status. “These children are innocent, these children are attempting to move forward with their lives. We’re taking time to pass immigration reform — obviously we need immigration reform — but these children shouldn’t have to suffer while we’re in the process of reshaping our national immigration policy.”
The potential bill, called the DREAM Act, has been criticized as a form of youth amnesty. But it’s also drawn unlikely allies in education advocates, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and military brass like retired Gen. Colin Powell. Both interests want to create a pathway to conditional legal residency for young people whom they say had no control over the circumstances that brought them here.
For the military, these immigrants — who are culturally American, if not American on paper — represent an untapped well of recruits who could bolster the Armed Forces in an era of strained commitment. For four-year universities and community colleges, they represent a domestic source of academic talent at a time when schools like ASU must search overseas for high achievers.
The bill would offer six years of conditional legal residency to students to attend college or enlist in the military. Ultimately, they could apply for U.S. citizenship. The program would be open only to children who entered the country before age 16, who have lived here continuously for at least five years before the bill’s enactment, who have “good moral character,” and who graduate from a U.S. high school (or obtain a GED) while qualifying for college or military service.
Currently, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate high school at this crossroads every year with few options ahead of them. As of right now, they are not eligible to join the military, and they face myriad college admissions requirements in different states.
One of the biggest obstacles is not enrolling in school, but paying for it. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal student loans (and they lack the Social Security numbers necessary to open the bank accounts to establish the credit to apply for private loans). Only 10 states grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who graduate from state high schools, and those states are penalized by a 1996 law requiring any state that gives in-state tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants to also give those same benefits to U.S. citizens regardless of residency.
Without student loan aid and in-state rates, undocumented students cannot legally work to pay for college. And in the event they are able to complete a degree, graduates cannot legally find jobs to use them.
Students who would benefit from the new law also cite a significant obstacle that speaks to more than logistics.
“There’s always the fear of, ‘What if an administrator within the school decides to call DHS?’ Applications are supposed to be private, but different things happen,” said Tolu Olubunmi, an undocumented immigrant who graduated college in 2002. “There is always that fear, and that goes with applying for college, and it goes with just existing.”
In addition to granting these students legal status, the DREAM Act would let states decide whether or not to offer them in-state tuition. It would also make immigrants eligible for student loans and work-study programs but not federal grant aid.
So far, the mechanics of passing it have proved even tougher than crafting its complex criteria. Politicians of both parties have supported the concept. But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted to tack the bill this week onto the defense authorization (along with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), many Republicans balked on procedural grounds.
The bill’s advocates hope they can make headway with the argument that this idea actually has nothing to do with all those other contentious issues evoked by Arizona’s immigration law.
“This is not actually about immigration,” Crow insisted. “This is about talent acquisition, this is about fairness, and this is about moving talent forward into the workplace.”