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The DREAM Act Explained

More than College for Illegal Immigrants

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Dream Act Demonstration

Demonstrators celebrate the Obama Administration's announcement about deferral of deportation of young illegal immigrants.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Updated July 03, 2012

The term "DREAM Act" (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) refers to any of several similar bills that have been considered, but so far not passed, by the U.S. Congress that would allow unauthorized alien students, primarily students who were brought into the United States as children by their unauthorized immigrant parents or other adults, to attend college on the same terms as U.S. citizens.

Note: Under the 14th Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1897 case of U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, children born to unauthorized aliens while in the United States are classified as American citizens from birth.

K-12 Education is Guaranteed

Until they reach age 18, the children of unauthorized aliens brought into the U.S. by their parents or adult guardians are not generally subject to government sanctions or deportation because of their lack of legal citizenship status. As a result, these children are eligible to receive free public education from kindergarten through high school in all states.

In its 1981 decision in the case of Plyer v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right of minor children of unauthorized aliens to receive free public education from kindergarten through high school is protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

While school districts are allowed to apply some restrictions, such as a requirement for a birth certificate, they may not deny enrollment because a child's birth certificate is issued by a foreign nation. Similarly, schools districts may not deny enrollment when the child's family is unable to provide a social security number.

Also See: US Citizenship Test Questions

The wisdom of providing free public education to children of unauthorized aliens is best summarized by the fear expressed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in Plyer v. Doe, that failure to do so would lead to the creation of "a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime."

Despite Justice Brennan's "subclass of illiterates" reasoning, several states continue to object to providing free K-12 education to the children of unauthorized aliens, arguing that doing contributes to overcrowded schools, increases costs by requiring bilingual instruction and decreases the ability of American students to learn effectively.

But After High School, Problems Arise

Once they finish high school, unauthorized aliens wishing to attend college face a variety of legal obstacles making it difficult, if not impossible for them to do so.

Also See: Lifetime Earnings Soar with Education

A measure in the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) has been held by the courts as prohibiting the states from granting far less expensive "in-state" tuition status to unauthorized aliens, unless they also offer in-state tuition to all U.S. citizens, regardless of state residency.

Specifically, Section 505 of the IIRIRA states that an unauthorized alien "shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident."

In addition, under the Higher Education Act (HEA), unauthorized alien students are not eligible to receive federal student financial aid.

Finally, prior to June 15, 2012, all unauthorized immigrants were subject to being deported once they reached age 18 and were not allowed to work legally in the United States, thus making attending college virtually impossible for them. But then, President Barack Obama exercised his presidential powers as boss of the executive branch agencies to change that.

Obama's Deportation Deferral Policy

Citing his frustration with the failure of Congress to pass a DREAM Act, President Obama on June 15, 2010, issued a policy authorizing U.S. immigration enforcement officials to grant young illegal immigrants who enter the U.S. before the age of 16, pose no security threat and meet other requirements a two-year deferral from deportation. [See details…]

By also allowing qualified young illegal immigrants to apply for authorization to work legally in the U.S., Obama's deportation deferral policy at least temporarily lowered two of the hurdles blocking illegal immigrants from a college education: the threat of being deported and not being allowed to hold a job.

"These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag," stated President Obama in his speech announcing the new policy. "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents -- sometimes even as infants -- and often have no idea that they're undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver's license, or a college scholarship."

President Obama also stressed that his exportation deferral policy was neither amnesty, immunity nor a "path to citizenship" for young illegal immigrants. But, is it necessarily a path to college and how does it differ from the DREAM Act?

What a DREAM Act Would Do

Unlike President Obama's deportation deferral policy, most versions of the DREAM Act introduced in past Congresses have provided a path to U.S. citizenship for young illegal immigrants.
As described in the Congressional Research Service report, Unauthorized Alien Students: Issues and "DREAM Act" Legislation, all versions of DREAM act legislation introduced in Congress have included provisions intended to assist young illegal immigrants.

Along with repealing sections of the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act prohibiting the states from granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, most versions of the DREAM Act would enable certain illegal immigrant students to gain U.S. legal permanent resident (LPR) status.

Also See: Education Nation: 30% of Americans Now Hold Degrees

Under the two versions of the DREAM Act introduced in the 112th Congress (S. 952 and H.R. 1842), young illegal immigrants could gain full LPR status through a two-stage process. They would first gain conditional LPR status after at least 5 years of residing in the U.S. and earning a high school diploma or being admitted to a college, university or other institution of higher education in the United States. They could then gain full LPR status by getting a degree from an institution of higher education in the United States, completing at least two years in a bachelor's or higher degree program, or serving for at least two years in the U.S. uniformed services.

Also See: U.S. Citizenship Through Military Service

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