When Marisol Hernandez arrived for her first day of third grade at a public school in Compton, Calif., about 10 years ago, she couldn't read any of the words that filled her textbooks but was nevertheless happy to have them. Her family had just moved from Mexico, and even from her 8-year-old perspective, Marisol (in order to protect her identity, U.S. News is using a pseudonym for this student) sensed she was in the land of opportunity. A shooting in the cafeteria of her school soon shook Marisol's faith, but it wasn't until she moved to Colorado and entered high school that she became truly disillusioned. It was then that she learned of her status as an undocumented immigrant and the impact this would have on her ability to go to college.
Undocumented immigrants living in America have legal rights to attend primary and secondary public schools, but those rights do not extend to higher education. Because immigration laws prevent these students from obtaining federal financial aid and just 10 states consider them eligible for in-state tuition at public universities, a vast majority of undocumented students simply can't afford to go to college. Marisol, who recently graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average, has dreams of studying classical humanities at Colorado State University, but today, she spends her time trying to figure out how to pay the bills.
"My friends were so excited about the loans they got and what schools they were going to," Marisol says. "My high school held a breakfast to honor the students who had received scholarships, but I couldn't go—not because I had poor grades or because I couldn't get a scholarship, but because I did not have a Social [Security number]."
A bill introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators this spring could dramatically improve undocumented students' access to higher education. Known in the Senate as the DREAM Act (for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), the bill would allow most students who came to the United States as children to stay in the country legally on a temporary basis upon graduation from high school. Though these students would not qualify for Pell grants under the DREAM Act, they would be eligible for work-study and student loans. If they studied at least two years toward a bachelor's degree, graduated from a two-year college, or served at least two years in the military, they would become eligible for permanent resident status.
While the DREAM Act has many supporters—including the College Board, the University of California system, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, Microsoft, and a number of other education, business, and political leaders—organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform strongly oppose the legislation. They say it would reward undocumented immigrant parents who have unlawfully brought their children into the country.
About 65,000 students who could benefit from the DREAM Act graduate from high school each year, according to a report published by the College Board in April. Though DREAM Act opponents express concerns that the bill would take financial aid and acceptance spots away from American citizens, the College Board's report found these concerns unfounded. The 11 states that consider undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition have not seen overwhelming numbers of new applicants, and most of the new applications they have received are from students seeking admission to community colleges with open enrollment policies and affordable tuition, the College Board states.
Ira Mehlman, media director at FAIR, says he would normally empathize with young adults put in difficult situations through no fault of their own. But if parents bring their children to this country illegally, it should be the parents' responsibility to help those children pay for higher education, Mehlman says. "When you ask the typical illegal immigrant why they came to this country, many will tell you that they did so because they wanted to do better for their family," Mehlman says. "The DREAM Act basically says to these people, 'While we disapprove of you breaking the law, we will still offer green cards and subsidized education to your children.' This simply encourages more people to break the law."
No control. Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat whose district covers parts of California's Los Angeles County, says he decided to propose the federal legislation after he learned of an undocumented high school valedictorian who was nearly denied the opportunity to attend college because of her legal status. "We tell students to stay in school, do the best they can, resist temptation to join a gang or drop out, and their hard work will be rewarded," Berman says. "But many of the students who follow these guidelines are being blocked from success because they are undocumented." He adds that it is not fair to blame the students for their parents' actions, particularly because most undocumented students had no control over how their families entered the country. Berman hopes that the American Dream Act, as the House bill is known, will be signed into law this fall either on its own or as part of comprehensive immigration reform.