De Leon: State DREAM Acts: Far from Fulfilling the Dream

Documented and undocumented youth rally for passage of the Dream Act in Times Square - Photo: Sarah Kramer

Documented and undocumented youth rally for passage of the Dream Act in Times Square. (Photo: Sarah Kramer)

Frustrated by Washington’s inertia on immigration reform, many states have enacted their own immigration laws, mostly geared towards pushing undocumented immigrants out. State lawmakers have pursued a principle of attrition which anti-illegal immigration group NumbersUSA describes as the “enforcement of all the laws already on the books” at all levels of government to “make it extremely difficult for unauthorized persons to live and work in the United States.” This is accomplished by either imposing strict sanctions on employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants and/or enlisting local and state law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people.

A few states have chosen a different tack and passed laws that aim to make the lives of certain undocumented immigrants a little bit better.  These sympathetic legislators are passing bills that have in mind the welfare and future of children and youth who were brought into the United States as minors by their parents and who consider America their home and themselves Americans.  These measures are touted as state versions of the federal DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented young people.

Ten years ago, the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, signed into law his state’s version of the DREAM Act, which allows in-state tuition for undocumented students who have lived in Texas for three years and either have obtained a GED or graduated from an accredited public or private school.

This month, Maryland was to enact a similar law for Dreamers – the moniker given to undocumented youth – so long as they prove that their parents paid taxes and that they have gone to high school in the state. But opponents of the statute were able to muster more than enough signatures for a petition to repeal the Maryland DREAM Act, and a referendum on the law will be held in 2012.

On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law his state’s own version and even hinted that he would support a measure allowing undocumented students to seek state-funded tuition aid.

While these initiatives are welcomed by Dreamers, their families and advocates, none address the fundamental dilemma faced by these young Americans: their undocumented status. In this sense, the DREAM Acts of California, Maryland and Texas are vastly different from the failed federal version which presents a way to citizenship for some young immigrants.

Dreamers in these few states may now envision a college degree, but can they see a secure and bright future for themselves and their families? Armed with a diploma, they will not be able to work legally and most likely not in the fields they studied.

Will they have to go underground? Or worse, will they leave their adopted country for places they don’t remember, but where they might be embraced and where their taxpayer subsidized education could be put to good use?

You can follow Erwin on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.