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2012 September 17 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Living The Dream

AP Photo/Alan Diaz
Jose Machado, left, holds a sign in Spanish that reads “No Dreamer Left Behind” during a news conference of students seeking temporary relief from deportation in Miami. Hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants scrambled to get papers in order as the U.S. started accepting applications to allow them to avoid deportation.

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Living The Dream
Deferred Deportation Offers New Hope for Immigrant Students
By Paul Bradley, Editor, Community College Week

It was less than two years ago that the promise of the DREAM Act became a nightmare for legions of young illegal immigrants, falling victim to a yawning political divide and a Republican-led Senate filibuster.

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The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act had first been introduced in Congress in 2001 and had a history of bipartisan support. It would have provided a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who came here as children, graduated from an American high school completed two years of college or served two years in the military. It died at the end of the 2010 session of Congress, falling four votes short of the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster.

But now the dream of staying in America has been revived — at least in part — for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, the vast majority of them Hispanics, with potentially profound impacts on the students and on community colleges.

Last June, the Obama administration announced its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, kind of a scaled-back version of the DREAM Act. Under the program, young illegal immigrants who previously faced deportation are being given the chance to remain in the U.S. and go to college or get a job. In effect, the new rules give temporary relief to young undocumented immigrants who would have qualified for legal status under the DREAM Act. As many as 1.7 million illegal immigrants could benefit from the new deportation rules.

“These young people finally will be able to use their education and drive to help their friends, family, and community prosper,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “The administration has shown that it believes in the power of the right to dream, and has given many young people the legal tools they need to begin to turn their professional and societal dreams into reality.”

About 65,000 illegal immigrants are estimated to graduate from high school each year, and many of them likely will be headed to community colleges under the new rules. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center underscored what educators already know: community colleges, due to their accessibility and low costs, are the higher education entry point of choice for Latinos.

The study found that this fall, for the second straight academic year, Hispanic students are the largest minority group on American college campuses. Two million Hispanic students are now enrolled in college, or 16.5 percent of the overall college-student population, an all-time high percentage, and, for the first time, equal to the percentage of Hispanics in the country’s overall population. And for the first time, Latinos account for more than 25 percent of community college enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds.

As recently as 2006, Hispanics made up just 11 percent of all college students. In just five years, their share has grown by almost 50 percent, the report said. For the first time, Hispanic representation among college students matched their representation in the overall population representation, which is also 16.5 percent. Hispanics make up 20 percent of the country’s 18- to 24-year-olds.

The number of Hispanics on community college campuses could get a significant boost from the deferred deportation plan. On the first day that illegal immigrants could apply for the program, thousands of immigrants lined up at meetings around the country, eager to start the paperwork that would allow them to stay in the country.

The program is anticipated to increase the number of Latino immigrants finishing high school and pursuing college degrees.

“The deferred action initiative, with its education requirements, offers these youth a significant incentive to stay in school and get their high school diploma,” said Margie McHugh, co-director of Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “And to the extent it raises hopes for eventual passage of the DREAM Act, it may encourage thousands more to set their sights on a college degree.”

The program is open to immigrants ages 15 to 30 who came to the country before they were 16 and have lived here continuously for at least the past five years. They must be free of serious criminal convictions, be enrolled in or have completed high school or college, or have served in the U.S. military. Students enrolled in GED programs and certain training programs will also qualify. Applications will be reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, which will consider them on a case-by-case basis. Each applicant will be charged a $465 application fee.

For the students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from college, the new policy means they will have the opportunity to work in their field of study.

For younger immigrants, the program removes some barriers to earning a college degree. But the main hurdle — cost — remains. Federal loans and grants, the largest source of aid for college students, require students to have a green card or U.S. citizenship, so the undocumented immigrants will be ineligible. Unable to afford elite universities or even state colleges, observers say, those student immigrants are expected to turn to community colleges.

Notably, the program is not a path to citizenship and is slated to last just two years. Should Obama lose the election in November, its future is uncertain; the Republican Party has taken a hard line on illegal immigration and its leaders oppose the deferred deportation plan.

The undocumented immigrants covered by the program defy easy stereotypes. They did not slip across the border in the dark of night in search of work. Most came here as small children, but were never naturalized as American citizens. They have attended American schools; under federal law, children of illegal immigrants already are entitled to a K-12 education. They scarcely recall living in their country of origin.

Growing numbers of these students are now teenagers or young adults and aspire to attend college. But at about the time when most teenagers start considering colleges, undocumented students begin worrying about their legal status.

The barriers they encounter are a hodge-podge of rules and regulations addressing higher education and illegal immigrants. While the right to a K-12 education for children of illegal immigrants is embedded in federal law, individual states and colleges set their own rules on whether illegal immigrants can attend.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 49 percent of illegal immigrants between the ages of 18 and 24 are in or have attended college, compared to 76 percent of legal immigrants.

Most illegal immigrants who do go to college enroll in less-costly community colleges. But they can take significantly longer to graduate, since they sometimes can afford only one or two classes a semester. Even if they can attend full-time, immigrants, like other students, find that classes fill up quickly, delaying the time to degree.

Still, the Obama administration is heavily invested in the educational success of Latinos. Its goal of having the country again lead the world in college completion rates depends on improved educational attainment from the country’s more than 50 million Hispanic residents. According to Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based education research organization, Hispanic students will need to earn 5.5 million degrees or certificates over the next several years for the country to reach its goal.

Immigration and education advocates hope that the deferred deportation initiative will lead to broader immigration reform.

“We look forward to effective implementation of this initiative and the economic and community benefits it will deliver,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “This temporary effort should inspire bipartisan congressional action to create a workable immigration process that allows these promising aspiring citizens to stay permanently in the only country they
call home, and to have a fair shot at the American dream.”

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