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Financial Aid

Debating the Delayed DREAM Act

Children of illegal immigrants and citizenship through higher education
University Business, Nov 2010

A recent, unsuccessful effort by Senate leaders to provide a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the United States illegally sparked debate over the provision among financial aid administrators. The provision, commonly referred to as the DREAM Act, would allow the children of illegal immigrants to earn citizenship through higher education or military service.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced the DREAM Act would be included in a Defense Department spending bill, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators joined the majority of the higher education community to advocate lawmakers to pass the bill.

NASFAA has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act because it fits with the association's mission to remove barriers to higher education especially for underserved student populations. However, NASFAA's diverse members don't always see eye to eye, and this is the case with the DREAM Act.

After NASFAA reiterated its support for the DREAM Act, members expressed their views on the bill and an interesting debate emerged. This column summarizes some of the more common points raised by members who support and oppose the DREAM Act.

NASFAA's 2010-11 National Chair Laurie Wolf sparked the DREAM Act debate among financial aid administrators when she posted a blog entry explaining why NASFAA supports the DREAM Act and addressing some common misperceptions about the bill.

Wolf wrote that "children of immigrants (legal or undocumented) are able to attend and receive [a K-12] education in the United States. Through their educational experience, they have been acclimated to our culture. Many of them are high academic achievers who want to give back to their adopted country. Under current law, they are not allowed to move forward with their lives, due to no fault of their own."

In her blog entry, Wolf echoes the sentiment of many DREAM Act supporters who contend that the children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for the actions of their parents. In response to this point, some aid administrators expressed concern that the DREAM Act would open the door to fraud and abuse by allowing adults to claim they were brought here as children to access the new path to citizenship. Others expressed concern that the DREAM Act would increase illegal immigration by providing an incentive for parents to bring their children into the country.

"I would be more inclined to support an effort to help undocumented students obtain citizenship while in high school, before reaching college age," one financial aid administrator writes in a comment to Wolf's blog entry.

The bill would allow children who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 to earn citizenship through higher education or military service. In her blog, Wolf stressed that these children have been raised and educated in the U.S. and the DREAM Act would prevent this population from being deported to a country about which they have little or no recollection. While most seem to sympathize with children brought here at an early age, one aid administrator responded to Wolf's blog that children brought over just before they turn 16 are probably more familiar with their home country than the United States.

Some argue that the government should provide sufficient funds for citizens before pledging aid to illegals.

DREAM Act opponents often argue that the bill offers amnesty to those who broke the law. Wolf responds to this point by arguing that the bill would not provide automatic citizenship to those who qualify. Instead, the legislation would provide a lengthy path to citizenship.

The DREAM Act would establish a six-year conditional permanent residency status for students who were brought to this country before the age of 16, have been here at least five years as of the enactment date, graduate from a U.S. high school or obtain a GED credential, and meet other requirements. DREAM-eligible individuals may qualify for permanent residency after six years by completing at least two years of higher education or military service.

"The bill would help ensure this population becomes productive members of U.S. society instead of existing in limbo," Wolf wrote. "These children have been raised and educated in U.S. schools and are willing to put on a uniform to defend the country or obtain a college education to contribute to the U.S. economy."

Those who oppose the DREAM Act responded that the nation should force these individuals to go through the current process to becoming a citizen instead of providing an additional path.

"Even if we concede that there was no way for them to impact the parents' decision to bring them here illegally, once they hit college age (at the latest) they are making a conscious decision to stay here and keep the illegality going," one aid administrator comments on the blog entry. "They may have been powerless to do something when they were brought here, but they can apply for citizenship on their own through other means. The act does not need to provide a redundant avenue."

The Act would prevent young people from being deported to a country about which they have little or no recollection.

Several aid administrators argued that there is currently a lack of student aid funding for U.S. citizens. They maintain that the government should provide sufficient funds for citizens before pledging aid to illegal immigrants.

"We cannot afford, nor should we aspire, to pay for the education of anyone who happens to be on American soil," one aid administrator comments.

"Our education is declining and no one would dispute that. So why spend the extra money for illegals when our own citizens are not making the grade?" another asks.

Other aid administrators argued that we can't afford to not educate this population.

"This attitude that we should invest in educating only those who are worthy will lead our economy to its ruin," an aid administrator comments. "I fear that this attitude is the residue of the era in our history when higher education was reserved only for the affluent. As a financial aid professional, I am all about expanding access to higher education—and not out of any philanthropic ideal, but as an economic imperative."

NASFAA represents a diverse membership of more than 18,000 aid administrators at about 2,800 institutions. This diversity means that the association can't always represent the sometimes conflicting view of its members.

When it comes to the DREAM Act, NASFAA joins the majority of the higher education community in supporting this legislation because it is consistent with NASFAA's Statement of Ethical Principles. These principles were adopted in 1999 and provide a common foundation for accepted standards of conduct for aid offices. Among other principles, the statement asserts that aid offices should:

  • be committed to removing financial barriers for those who wish to pursue postsecondary learning
  • make every effort to assist students with financial need
  • support efforts to encourage students, as early as the elementary grades, to aspire to and plan for education beyond high school.

For these reasons, NASFAA will continue to support the DREAM Act, but it will also continue to encourage debate about this and other issues.

Haley Chitty is director of communications at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators,