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Immigrant Students Push for New York State DREAM Act

By John Tarleton
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While President Obama and Congress try to reach an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform this year, undocumented immigrant students in New York are pushing for legislation that would provide equal access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), regardless of immigration status.

Immigrant student activists have fought for over a decade to win Congressional approval for the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship to many undocumented immigrants who entered the US before the age of 16 and intend to pursue a college education or serve in the military.

Partial Boost

While they have not yet won passage of the bill, the “Dreamers” – as the DREAM Act’s advocates are known – got a partial boost last June, when President Obama gave undocumented immigrant students the opportunity to apply for a two-year legal status with the option to extend their status for another two years. While continuing their efforts to sway Congress, New York’s Dreamers have recently turned their attention to Albany.

Undocumented immigrant students are eligible for in-state tuition in New York if they meet certain conditions, but are barred from accessing TAP, a disparity they say must be addressed. Three states – Texas, California and New Mexico – currently make state financial aid available to undocumented college students.

“Fifty-nine years after Brown v. Board of Education, we have students who are put in a separate and unequal status in New York,” said Raneen Zaman, advocacy coordinator for the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an umbrella group for undocumented students in the state.

In 2012, the proposed New York State DREAM Act failed to gain traction in either house of the Legislature. On January 16, Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick introduced their version of the New York State DREAM Act, which is backed by a coalition of undocumented youth, unions (including the PSC) and immigrant, community and faith-based organizations. In addition to providing access to TAP for undocumented students, the bill would also incorporate a privately financed Dream Fund that would provide scholarships and extend access to 529 college savings accounts by allowing the use of taxpayer identification numbers. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Jose Peralta.

Silver told the Daily News that the Dreamers are New Yorkers who are likely to someday become citizens, and that it is a mistake to ignore their needs. “We should want them to become productive members of society, and we’re preparing them for that,” he said.

Senator Jeffrey Klein has said he will introduce a similar measure, which would be financed by a dedicated funding stream from casino licensing fees – it thus depends on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish up to seven new casinos in the state.

The State currently spends $885 million a year on TAP. A report last year from the Albany-based Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) estimated that the DREAM Act would cost $17 million a year and would help about 5,500 undocumented students, the majority of whom attend CUNY.

“It would make a big difference in the lives of these students,” said Donna Gill, a 20-year veteran HEO at Hunter who has worked in the Bursar’s Office, the Registrar’s Office and in financial aid. Gill said undocumented students drop out of school more often due to financial than academic issues, a trend that has been exacerbated by annual tuition hikes of $300 a year.

“The money is there,” Gill added. In a state with as much wealth as New York, she said, “it’s more about priorities.”

In its report, FPI noted that students who go on to obtain a four-year college degree end up earning, on average, $25,000 more per year than individuals with only a high school education. This translates into an extra $3,900 a year in state and local tax payments.

“This is about New York getting more skilled, educated graduates who can continue building up the state,” said Zaman.

Persuading Cuomo

Governor Cuomo did not include funding for the DREAM Act in his executive budget released January 22. But Zaman is hopeful that the governor and at least a few Republicans in the narrowly divided State Senate will come around. Last year, the NYS Youth Leadership Council organized a nine-day, 154-mile walk to Albany over spring break to publicize their cause. Participants made a point of visiting more conservative areas whenever possible. This year, Zaman said, the group may walk across Long Island, home to a surging immigrant population and several “swingable” Republican state senators.

“To get this bill passed, we need New Yorkers behind us,” Zaman said.