Undocumented and Underutilized?
December 1, 2011
California’s Dream Act is a step forward, but a national law is necessary
On Oct. 8, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act into law. The law, which goes into effect in 2013, will allow qualified undocumented students to receive state-funded financial aid to attend a public California college or university. Students can receive aid in the form of Cal- Grants, UC and CSU grants, and fee-waivers from community colleges. Documented students will have the first shot at the competitive CalGrants. To qualify for approved aid, undocumented students will need to demonstrate financial need, have graduated from a California high school or received their GED, and must prove that they have applied for lawful immigration status or will apply once they are eligible to do so.
Eleven states, including California, allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at their colleges and universities. In all other states, undocumented students must pay the higher out-of-state fee. However, even when allowed to pay in-state tuition, it is often impossible for undocumented students and their families to afford the cost of college since they cannot have higher-paying jobs that require documentation and cannot receive federal financial aid. The aid provisions in the California Dream Act will help undocumented students actually attend college.
The California Dream Act is a highly charged piece of legislation because it intertwines hotbed issues like education, the economy, and immigration – and therefore issues related to nationality and racial identity. Like any controversial issue, it has passionate supporters and opponents. The Claremont Colleges has its own enthusiastic pro-Dream Act group, IDEAS, which works to support issues related to immigration and undocumented students.
Supporters of the new law recognize that most undocumented students came to America with their families. They themselves did not choose to move to the U.S. or to become “illegal” immigrants. Many of these young people have lived in America since their early years and have no memory of their life in their countries of birth. Some undocumented students are actually unaware of their citizenship status until they need to apply for a job or apply to college. Supporters recognize that the idea of nationality is a man-made concept. They ask, isn’t it silly to decide that one student’s education is more worthy of your tax dollars because a piece of paper says they are American? These undocumented students pursuing college have an American identity, no matter what their documents say.
Supporters also argue that encouraging undocumented students to pursue higher education will ultimately benefit California. Undocumented students will add to the intellectual and cultural life at their colleges, produce jobs, and contribute to the U.S. economy once they graduate. As Governor Brown explained in The Washington Post, “The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to im- prove their lives and the lives of all of us.”
Opponents of the Dream Act insist that it is simply not fair for American citizens to give public money to undocumented students. They wonder, why should American tax dollars pay for non-American students’ education? The law’s opponents point out that the state cannot afford to give out more money and add new students since the state is in a finacial crisis, California colleges are overcrowded, and tuition is rising. They believe undocumented students will be taking away financial aid and spots at schools from documented students.
Claremont’s assemblyman, Tim Donnelly, thinks this law will draw new undocumented immigrants, telling the LA Times that this law “is going to cause tens of thousands of people to come here illegally from all over the world.” Donnelly is currently working to create an anti-Dream Act ballot measure under a campaign titled “Stop the CA Nightmare Act: Stop the Dream Act Before it Ruins the American Dream.” Finally, others like Assemblyman Curt Hagman stress the rule of law above all else, telling the LA Times that the Dream Act belittles immigration law. Hagman thinks giving in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students sends the message that “if you violate the law, it’s OK.”
The Claremont Colleges’ Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS) club was created they year to support the California Dream Act, the national DREAM Act, and other immigration and undocumented student related issues. The national DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students who arrived in America before the age of sixteen, and who will commit two years to either higher education or the U.S. military. In 2010, the DREAM Act passed the House but was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. The arguments for and against the national proposal are similar to those for California’s version.
IDEAS member María Rodriguez PZ ’15 believes that “immigration rights are human rights.” She points out that the state and national acts are especially relevant to the small population of undocumented students at the Claremont Colleges. IDEAS runs a mentoring program to support these students. IDEAS co-chair Eric Martinez PO ’14 explains that their group also participates in outreach to undocumented students at local high schools “to let them know there are opportunities” to afford and attend college. IDEAS is also active in the Pomona dining hall unionization movement. The group meets on Mondays at 5:30 pm in the Blue Room at Frank Dining Hall.
While the number of undocumented students at the Claremont Colleges and other undocumented students aspiring to or attending college in California might seem small, they are a tight and highly organized activist community. Virtually all college campuses and regions of California have organizations working to support the Dream Act and undocumented students. For example, Rodriguez is active in the Inland Empire Dream Team. This organization is led by undocumented college students and alumni who represent different areas within the Inland Empire. College and regional groups are in contact with each other and occasionally gather at statewide events.
Another supporter of both Dream Acts is Professor Adrian Pantoja, a Pitzer professor of political studies and Chican@/ Latin@ studies. He believes that the national Dream Act should be passed since the students have “done everything this country has asked them to do.” In order to gain bipartisan support, he thinks the act should be framed as a win-win situation. Deserving people gain citizenship, while the entire country benefits from their military service or education. Also, with more college graduates, the country will benefit from the taxes they will pay and the jobs they will create. Unfortunately, Pantoja does not see the Dream Act passing anytime soon since politicians and their constituents are more focused on jobs, the economy, and – for the politicians – reelection. He says that historically immigration is “not a deciding issue for voters.”
Another Dream Act supporter, Madeleine Ranson PZ ’15 sums up the argument for the legislation: “Everyone in this country deserves an education.” To counter those who believe undocumented students are harming America, she adds, “Just because you don’t have legal papers doesn’t mean you are not contributing to society.”
The California and national Dream Acts have clear benefits for the undocumented students and the entire United States. They provide education and citizenship to hardworking young people – people who did not have a choice in their immigration status and will give back to the country they love and call home though military service and economic contributions. California’s Dream Act is a step in the right direction, but it is time for Congress to step up and pass national legislation.