The DREAM Act: What it Could Mean for Immigrant Students
Approximately 65,000 children of illegal immigrants graduate from public high schools in the US each year. Children of illegal immigrants who want to go to college in the US often have a very difficult time. They are not eligible for any government aid for college as non-US citizens. Many students grew up in the US, went to American public schools, and fully expected to go to college. And of these students, many don’t realize their illegal status until they began the financial aid application process. For fully integrated students with college dreams, the realization that they have no financial aid options can be devastating.
Children of illegal immigrants don’t just have trouble getting funding for college. They also have trouble getting permanent residency status. Currently, children can usually only get this status through their parents. Without an immigration visa, the child would have to leave the US to apply for a visa—although going back to his or her birth country doesn’t guarantee a visa. When a child tries to return legally after leaving this way, he or she could face three- to ten-year bans on entering the US. This can seriously disrupt education plans.
Recently, Congress re-examined the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was first introduced to the United States Senate in 2001. This bill provides the children of illegal immigrants who qualify with options for college—and citizenship. Here’s an overview of what students would get under this new law.
Students who qualify could earn conditional permanent residency status after completing two years in the US military or two years at a four-year academic institution. After these two years, a six-year temporary residency period would kick in—after which the student must have earned a degree, have been enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree program for at least two years, or have served in the military for at least two years with an honorable discharge—if discharged. After this six-year period, students could apply for legal permanent residency. This could eventually lead to citizenship status.
Currently, children of illegal immigrants cannot apply for any federal grant aid. Under the DREAM Act, they could apply for federal student loans and work-study programs, although they would not be eligible for Pell grants and other higher education grants from the federal government.
There are several misconceptions about the DREAM Act that have led many to oppose it. Here are an overview of the most well-known and damaging myths about the act.
Myth 1: Taxpayer dollars will be used for grants and scholarships for illegal immigrants.
Fact: Under the act, students are only eligible for federal student loans and work-study programs which must be paid back or earned through work. They cannot receive Pell grant funding.
Myth 2: Under the DREAM Act, undocumented students get cheaper tuition than American citizens.
Fact: The DREAM Act permits illegal immigrant students to have access to in-state tuition, but only if they would otherwise qualify—and only if in-state law permits it. Under most versions of the Act, states have a lot of latitude in deciding whether these students get access to in-state tuition.
Myth 3: The DREAM Act gives illegal students automatic citizenship.
Fact: There are strict criteria for illegal immigrant students to qualify for the DREAM Act in the first place. For instance, students must have come to the US before the age of 16, have lived in the country for at least five years, and have graduated from a US high school or earned a GED. Once they qualify, they have to obtain conditional residency and a green card—which can take many years. The DREAM Act is by no means an automatic path to citizenship.
Myth 4: The DREAM Act will encourage illegal immigration.
Fact: Many people oppose this bill because they believe it provides incentives for more people to come to the US illegally. In reality, because of the stringent residency requirements to qualify for the DREAM Act, it’s unlikely to actually stimulate illegal immigration more than difficult economic conditions in home countries.
The DREAM Act could make college dreams come true for thousands of children of illegal immigrants who had no control over their status—and who are currently paying for the mistakes of their parents. In December 2010, the Act was voted down in the Senate after passing the House. However, Democrats have vowed to continue the fight—and thousands of students all over the country hope that they succeed.
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