State-by-State Push for a Dream Act

Three states may not be a watershed, but passage in three states of Dream Act-like bills shows a growing momentum for a national bill that would put the children of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship if they attend college.

Maryland’s Senate recently passed a bill that would allow undocumented students an opportunity to attend state universities and colleges at in-state tuition rates. Should Maryland’s governor sign the legislation it would become one of 11 states in the country, ranging from Kansas to California, that permit this. In California, a bill that would allow undocumented students to compete for state aid and scholarships is under consideration.

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A New York bill, introduced late last week, takes the legislation further, allowing students who are here illegally but have graduated from high school in New York to access scholarships and financial aid for college, get access to health insurance, obtain driver's licenses, and be able to hold some state jobs. 

In an interview with The New York Times, state Sen. Bill Perkins, who introduced the bill, acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass. But I would argue that raising the bill itself and a possible passage could tremendously affect national support and acceptance of a Dream Act. The state-by-state initiative being employed by immigrant and youth groups in New York, California, and Maryland are similar to what the gay-rights community has done with gay marriage. It’s an uphill battle, but each passage of legislation creates a level of acceptance and acknowledgment in the public mind-set.

What could derail this state-by-state goal, however, is the argument made by opponents to the bills that allowing undocumented students to access these rights could put further stress on state budgets and/or put legal citizens and young people in competition for jobs with students who came here illegally. But as many young activists for the Dream Act argue, the United States is the only country they’ve ever known. 

Another potential pitfall to this legislation is gubernatorial support. In Connecticut in 2007, the state Legislature narrowly passed a bill allowing undocumented students the right to access in-state tuition fees after a pitched legislative battle. Gov. Jodi Rell, however, took political cover from federal inaction and argued that she couldn’t sign a bill without knowing what the potential federal precedent could be.

In California, a bill that would allow students access to state scholarships and financial aid has been approved and vetoed four times under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Gov. Jerry Brown has appeared amenable to the passage of a bill. Perkins, the sponsor of New York’s legislation, has said he hasn’t surveyed his colleagues or Gov. Cuomo on support for the bill. However, opponents are already pointing to the political mud pit Gov. Eliot Spitzer fell into by supporting a bill that would have provided driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The lesson in all of this may just be that the push for immigration reform has moved to the state level because of federal inaction, and like other hot-button issues, e.g. gay rights, a patchwork of rights and restrictions will exist until the federal government chooses to act.