Monday, October 10, 2011

The American DREAM

Image by Ralph Steadman
No facet of our country's immigration debate is more heartless or economically foolish than our failure to support undocumented children who have grown up on American soil. These young people have gone to school alongside their native-born peers and in many cases have shown themselves to be outstanding scholars, athletes and entrepreneurs. And yet when they graduate from high school, they enter a legal limbo with limited resources to pursue higher education and climb the economic ladder. Help from Congress won't be forthcoming given Republican intransigence. Even the so-called "moderate" Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, recently said that opposing financial aid to undocumented students was not heartless, but smart. It's up to progressive cities, states and private institutions to step off the sidelines and give these young people a shot at the American Dream -- or no one else will.

Each year, about 65,000 undocumented immigrant children who have grown up in the United States graduate from high school. And while they are eligible to apply for college, a network of laws and economic realities makes for a virtual wall between today's immigrant youth and the kind of education that could help them climb the economic ladder. Because they lack American citizenship or legal immigration status, it is impossible to secure college loans. Those same factors prohibit undocumented students from finding work that would help them pay their own way through college. They are ineligible for federal financial aid, and in some states, aren't even eligible for in-state tuition rates. The economic downturn and rising college tuition have only worsened matters.

In 2010, the DREAM Act offered some hope for reprieve. It would create a pathway to citizenship for students -- known as 'DREAMers'-- who attend college or served in the U.S. military for at least two years. But the DREAM Act failed to pass in the U.S. Senate, leaving the children of immigrants in limbo. That failure was a wakeup call to those of us in local government that we couldn't count on Congress to pass even the most commonsense immigration reforms.

At the Office of the Public Advocate, we are using the full weight of our Fund for Public Advocacy to assist these young people here in New York City. The Fund is partnering with the New York Immigration Coalition to help undocumented students finance higher education and encourage them to be active in their communities. This month, the "Dream Fellowship Program" will provide ten exceptional students with scholarships and internships at organizations that educate and empower immigrant families across New York City.

Until recently, New York City fully appreciated this economic case. Our city used to award the Peter F. Vallone Academic Scholarship to undocumented and documented students every year. Named after a former Speaker of the City Council who represented some of the city's most vibrant immigrant communities, the scholarship helped support more than 14,000 students over the last decade. Regrettably, it was scrapped in this year's budget, cutting off a vital source of local aid.

This is a compassionate way to help our neighbors, but it is also sound economic policy. By investing in their education, we stand to benefit from their future economic success and decrease our spending on services they would otherwise need to stay afloat without an education. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the passage of the DREAM Act would have cut the deficit by $1.4 billion and increased government revenues by $2.3 billion over the next 10 years. And with the job outlook bleak, immigrant entrepreneurs can spark job creation and growth. Nationwide in 2010, immigrants were more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans.

We can help make things right. We can't wait for Congress to act or local budgets to be restored.The Dream Fellowship Program is a step in the right direction towards supporting undocumented children across this city. Innovative programs like this will point the way forward and support a new wave of young scholars, athletes and entrepreneurs who will demonstrate the promise of investing in undocumented youth. The time has come to unlock the full creativity and potential of all Americans to meet the challenges we face.

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