DREAM State: ABA Panel Discusses How Immigration Policies are Affecting Students’ Access to Higher Education
If you are an undocumented immigrant and want to attend college, where you live matters.
With comprehensive federal immigration reform stalled, states are taking widely different approaches on whether undocumented young people, many of whom were brought to the United States by their parents and educated in public schools, can receive in-state tuition, scholarships or even attend a university or college at all.
At a CLE panel sponsored by the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, three experts discussed the mixed outlook for undocumented students seeking access to higher education and the changing dynamic brought on by the coming of age of the “dreamers,” a group of young people who benefitted from the Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe in 1982. That ruling guaranteed a basic K-12 education for all children in the United States, regardless of their immigration status.
Rigo Padilla, 24, is one of those students. The organizer, advocate and co-founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago came to the United States from Mexico when he was just six years old.
“I didn’t see myself different than anyone else, growing up in this country, with English being the first language that was taught to me,” Padilla said. “It wasn’t until high school that I really knew what it was like to be undocumented.”
For example, Padilla’s parents feared a trip to a government office to help their son apply for a driver’s license. Padilla was later admitted to a college but realized he would not qualify for student financial aid because of his immigration status.
“For so long you hear about effort and education and succeeding and going to college, and when you turn 18, you hear from the federal government that you should be deported,” he said.
A number of states have enacted laws that either restrict or outright ban undocumented students from enrolling in higher education.
In Georgia, undocumented students cannot attend the top five most selective institutions in the state. This past year, immigration advocates were able to defeat a state legislative bill that would have banned these students from higher education entirely, said Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The restrictive laws are facing legal challenges in several states, including New Jersey and Florida.
Congress nearly passed the DREAM Act, which would have provided permanent residency for some undocumented young immigrants, in 2010. But the CLE speakers agreed President Obama’s new policy to allow some young people to stay in this country and work without fear of deportation has already altered the conversation.
“This panel would have been very different if it was held before June 15th,” said Michael Tan, a staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and a vice-chair of the ABA Committee on the Rights of Immigrants. “The Obama Rule changed everything.”
Current federal law allows states the option to offer children who are not citizens or permanent residents the same access to higher education as those who are U.S. citizens. Twelve states including Illinois now have these “tuition equity laws” on the books, and other states are considering similar legislation. “These laws recognize that someone’s status is complex, fluid and changes over time,” Tan said.
The panelists argued that denying undocumented students access to education is short-sighted. Many are talented and hard-working, they said. When they graduate, they often earn more, increasing their standard of living and providing more taxable income to the U.S. Treasury. Furthermore, these students provide more revenue to universities and colleges, which are already struggling with state budget cuts.
Opponents of tuition equity laws say the undocumented students are taking away spots at colleges and universities that should belong to U.S. citizens. About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but only 5-10 percent go on to college, Tan said, showing it is a very small number of immigrants who seek higher education.
Padilla says the biggest obstacle for undocumented students and their supporters has been a lack of information, or sometimes, misinformation, that is distributed to not only the young people affected, but also to the public at large.
“Coming out of the shadows has been our most effective strategy to date,” added Padilla. “Throwing numbers and statistics don’t have an impact on [people]. Meetings with legislators and holding rallies make people begin to realize that the immigration issue is more complicated than it looks.”