By Abidjan Walker, ERC communications intern

In 2012, the DREAM Act narrowly failed in the U.S. Senate. Millions of young immigrants, brought to this country as small children, would have benefited from the passage of the act. One of the most significant aspects of this failed legislation would have been access to higher education for these young DREAMers.

As a response to this legislative inaction, 15 states, including New York, California, and Texas adopted laws that would support undocumented immigrants in their pursuit of higher education. These laws stipulate that once undocumented students have graduated from high school in these states; they may qualify for financial assistance to attend college. State laws may allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and access financial aid as well.

With proactive laws such as these, DREAMers are slowly gaining a much greater opportunity for higher education. Yet, barriers still remain due to their immigration status. Lacking legal documentation, many of those who came to this country as small children are forced to take jobs where employers can pay them “under the table.” Others are forced to work as volunteers, since they cannot be paid for their work due to lack of documentation. This cycle reinforces a pattern where bright young people see the pursuit of higher education as a futile endeavor, choosing instead to permanently join the undocumented workforce.

To help break this cycle, and avoid the highly partisan legislative gridlock surrounding the issue, President Obama signed an executive order in June, 2012, that provides temporary recourse for thousands of undocumented young people. The Deferred Action for Child Arrivals is a program that gives people ages sixteen and older, who came to the U.S. as children, the renewable opportunity to live in the U.S. for two years without fear of deportation. The order also supported the possibility that certain individuals may obtain work authorization documentation. With such documentation, people would be able to apply for higher-paying jobs that incentivize a college education.

Prior to the passage of this executive order, undocumented high school graduates did not have many options. They could not properly pursue a college education because of their immigration status. However, legislators are slowly catching up to the actions of the Obama administration. The Senate has recently passed a comprehensive immigration bill, which includes an outline for a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans. If the House of Representatives passes a similar version of this immigration bill, the reform could be momentous, helping millions realize their dream of going to college and starting a career.

Many of the DREAMers did not have a choice to come to this country and yet have spent their live in America, earning a valuable education side-by-side with their peers. By providing DREAMers with the opportunity to take these skills and education beyond a high school classroom and to a college or university, we can bolster the economy with a greater number of young professionals who want to make positive contributions to the nation that they call home.

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