After a year of continued paralysis in Washington, D.C., it falls yet again to the states to take action on issues of importance. The opening of this year’s legislative session presents us with one: The chance to pass a state version of the Dream Act.
Indeed, it was only a year ago, in the wake of their 2012 election loss, that national Republicans seemed to want to address immigration reform — or at least consider sensible legislation to tackle the status of the millions of undocumented immigrants already here.
One of the bills rejected by Congress — the Dream Act — would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal residents if they met stringent requirements, including having been brought to this country only when they were very young.
New York can’t provide such a pathway for our own young-and-undocumented. Most came to this country through no fault of their own, because of decisions their parents made years ago. Thousands of these young-and-undocumented “Dreamers” graduate from New York high schools every year. And since they are considered illegal aliens, they are unable to receive state tuition assistance for college. As a result, very few undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school end up being able to go to college — some estimates put the figure between 5 and 10 percent.
Door is shut
With the rising cost and necessity of higher education, the door remains shut for these Dreamers. The lack of a degree costs them in their own lives and saps our society of the benefit they could provide us were they able to pursue higher studies — this means productive, entrepreneurial and creative pursuits, as well as the tax money they’d be paying with their larger earnings.
So, since they’re already here and aren’t going anywhere, why should we deny the blameless a chance to get an education? And on the converse, how do we benefit by making life harder for them, and by extension ourselves, while they remain here, bereft of opportunities we could easily open up?
Put simply: We are worse off with a mass of young undocumented immigrants, spurned and told to go back into the shadows by the country they want to call their own. It is most certainly better to help Dreamers on the road to success, and make them feel good about the society they’re already unofficially a part of. Thus, we should pass a state version of the Dream Act and give them the access to financial aid that they need.
Don’t punish children
Sure, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to give tuition assistance to adults who came here illegally. But their children? Who came here because their parents brought them? It seems an antiquated notion of justice to want to punish children for the sins of their parents — unless you take it as true that most kids and babies have an intimate role in their family’s decision to emigrate illegally.
Even if we leave the realm of moralizing, the “practical” argument — something along the lines of, “We don’t want to encourage more illegal immigration!” — still doesn’t make sense. In itself, the Dream Act does not create a massive incentive for people to come here illegally; many challenges remain for illegal residents and their families.
This bill simply affects a small cohort of those who are already here, but it affects them in a very big way.
Our country is many things, but one of those things is an idea — that of being a land of opportunity to pursue the American Dream. It should then follow that we should consider immigrants — those who want to leave their home country and struggle to become Americans — to be deserving of a fair shot at success here. They’re what made our country and our state; after all, most of us are the descendants of immigrants.
Surely, legal immigrants should be given preference over the undocumented. But it should be a no-brainer — for practicality’s sake, at the very least! — to grant Dreamers who have already been here since they were kids the chance to pursue that dream just as we, and our children, do our own.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has already said he would push to get the Dream Act passed in the Senate, which is, of course, thanks to the so-called Independent Democrat Conference, in the hands of Republicans. Thus, that chamber is the key stumbling block to the bill’s passage. Silver’s Assembly has already passed it in previous sessions.
Examples to follow
For New York, the beacon-like destination for immigrants for the better part of a century, not to have its own version of the Dream Act in place is preposterous. California, Illinois and New Mexico already have some kind of law in place that would do essentially this same thing.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has announced that he would support his state’s version of the Dream Act, and has hinted at a possible run for president in a Republican primary field.
This important piece of legislation should be taken up again by the Legislature this session and Gov. Cuomo should champion it. With the governor’s strong arm behind it, it should be an easy vote for an easy fix to a big problem.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.