The American Dream and Immigrant Youth

Young people, of whatever background, who do well in high school, have many options in front of them. Usually, those options begin with selecting the college or university that best meets their needs, hopes, and desires. In the U.S., a good education is seen as part of the path to realizing the American Dream; this has many definitions, but parents usually see a college education as the first prong in their child’s effort to do better in life than they did. In the current economic downturn, there have been some challenges to this idea, but most leaders, from the President on down, still believe post-secondary education is an important step in achieving success in life.

There is a group of youth that is in danger of being cut off from access to this avenue to the American Dream. I am referring to children who were brought to this country by immigrant parents without proper documentation. These children had no choice in the matter; they simply were part of a family that came to America illegally. Now, many of these children are graduating from high school and are applying to colleges. Some are outstanding students and would easily qualify for scholarships or financial aid. At the very least, they would normally be required to pay the in-state tuition rate for the public institution in the area where they reside.

Most states require students without proper documentation to pay out-of-state tuition and they are usually ineligible for financial aid. This creates an impenetrable barrier for many families who are barely making a living in low or medium wage jobs. Recognizing this problem, California and some other jurisdictions have enacted laws permitting such students to pay in-state tuition rates and have access to loans and scholarships. These students are known as Dreamers, since the laws that have been passed are usually named by the acronym D.R.E.A.M. (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors).

Interestingly, Congressional attempts to help these young people’s access the American Dream began over 11 years ago. The DREAM Act was introduced as a bi-partisan bill and, as recently as 2010, had bi-partisan support in the United States Senate. President Obama has spoken forcefully about the need to resolve issues for these students who were innocently caught up in the current immigration dispute. Unfortunately, the House and Senate bills at present have little chance of making any progress on the DREAM Act until the next Congress is impaneled.

The federal government is the only entity that can resolve the largest issue overhanging the futures of the Dreamers: access to legal status. While some state and local jurisdictions can and have resolved the tuition problem, they have no power over immigration status: only the federal government can determine that issue. The Congressional DREAM Act offers a path to citizenship for Dreamers who continue their education or serve in the military and fulfill certain other conditions, such as remaining law abiding persons. The path to citizenship is the part that will prevent it from becoming law. Many Members of Congress simply do not want to face the public backlash they believe will come from those who object to any form of “amnesty” or pathway to citizenship for undocumented people in the U.S.

That is regrettable in so many ways. While the annual number of students who would be affected by the DREAM Act is relatively small (some have pegged it at 65,000 or less) the impact on each of their families is large. I have talked with students who didn’t actually know they weren’t eligible for a state scholarship until they filled out the application form and learned from their parents that they had no legal status! Clearly, such students haven’t been lurking in the shadows, planning crimes against America, or doing whatever nefarious things people opposed to the legislation fantasize about undocumented people. Quite the opposite, the Dreamers have done pretty much what society asks of young people: they’ve been good students, school and community leaders, and are usually strongly bonded to their families.

Further, as U.S. business leaders quoted in the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, we are wasting an enormous set of resources by blocking the Dreamers’ access to college. These are the people who should be replacing the ever-growing cadre of retiring workers, managers, engineers, teachers, etc. How does cutting off these achieving students from their futures benefit our foundering economy?  While former Governor (R-AR) Mike Huckabee opposes certain aspects of the DREAM Act, he says, “The idea that you punish a child for something the parent did is wrong, and in the end, I’d rather have a child become a taxpayer instead of remaining a tax taker.”

It is time that we do the right thing: permit access to the American Dream to the innocent, young people who want nothing more than to be part of the future of our great country.


About David Strauss, AFOP's Executive Director

David A. Strauss has actively advocated for America’s farmworkers and served AFOP member agencies as the Executive Director since 2000. In addition to his role as the Executive Director, David is also on the steering committees of the Child Labor Coalition and the National Farmworker Alliance, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. David has a Master of Arts in public administration and a B.A. in political science. He and his family live in Rockville, Maryland.
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