Harry Reid's Dream Act: Help for Undocumented Students

When Mirta Gonzalez was accepted to Harvard in 2004, her relief was mixed with trepidation. As an undocumented immigrant, she feared her Mexican passport would raise suspicion on the trip to Boston from her California home. Gonzalez had never admitted her alien status—not to high school counselors, not even to Harvard—and had no one to turn to for logistics help. "In a way, getting in wasn't the hardest part," she says. "It was getting there."

Gonzalez, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, made it across the country undetected and enrolled. No one at Harvard asked about her status. It wasn't until her senior year that she searched out other undocumented Ivy League students to see how they planned to cope with the barriers to entering the professional world. As it turned out, there were more than she'd expected. In Harvard's 2009-2013 classes, she says she found at least 18. She located similar numbers at Yale and a handful at Cornell and Brown. "I was amazed by how many I found," says Gonzalez.

Ivy League schools offer their own version of "don't ask, don't tell" and have become sanctuaries for a select—and possibly growing—group of high-achieving illegal immigrants who are able to defer the harsh realities of undocumented life, at least until graduation. Soon, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who owes his reelection largely to Nevada's Hispanic voters, will try to make it possible for many of those students to stay in the U.S. legally.

Reid pledged in an Oct. 31 Univision interview to bring to a floor vote the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or Dream, Act in the lame-duck session beginning Nov. 15. The measure would allow students who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country at least five years, and have a high school or equivalent degree, to apply for permanent residency after two years of college or military service. The legislation failed in September when Reid sought to attach it to a $726 billion defense authorization bill. The election-eve vow to resurrect the proposal may have saved his career: Exit polls by Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan research group, show that 10 percent of votes cast in his Senate race were by Latinos. Of those, 90 percent backed Reid.

Of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today, about 65,000 complete high school each year, according to the Urban Institute. Of those, about 5 percent to 10 percent go to college. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that less than half of 2.1 million eligible youth would meet the act's requirements.

For students in the U.S. illegally, the soaring cost of tuition is a near-insurmountable barrier. They are ineligible for federal loans and, in most cases, in-state tuition. For those accomplished enough to make it to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Dartmouth, admission means a full ride—tuition, fees, room, and board—if they are needy. Some non-Ivies, including Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have similar policies. Brown and Cornell offer full rides for needy U.S. students only, but often help non-U.S. students, too.

In applying to college, Gonzalez says she "took that Princeton Review (REVU) catalog they send you in the mail and just went through it, tearing out all the need-blind schools." She narrowed her list from there. To be as honest as possible, she applied as a foreign student and never addressed the fact that her transcripts and recommendations were from a California high school.

Others apply without noting citizenship (most applications don't require Social Security numbers). Some even admit their status. Colleges have no legal obligation to ask about immigration status, as long as no federal money is at play, and many turn a blind eye. "There is no citizenship requirement at Harvard," Jeff A. Neal, a Harvard spokesman, says in an e-mail. Some schools, such as Vassar College and Santa Ana (Calif.) College, openly say they offer aid for undocumented students. The Ivies and other elite schools appear to be the most attractive option. A June 2010 National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) study shows that schools admitting 50 percent of applicants or less are almost twice as likely to receive applications from undocumented students as those admitting more than 85 percent.

Reliable statistics for undocumented immigrants are hard to come by. It's impossible to know how their academic performance has changed over time. Certainly, more students are speaking up: David Hawkins, NACAC's director of public policy and research, says a growing number of valedictorians out themselves at the annual immigration rights rally in Washington, risking arrest. "Five or six years ago, one or two people [would] get up and say, 'I'm the valedictorian of my class,' " he says. "Now you'll see 10 or 15 up on stage." The Dream Act is behind much of the activism.

One who might benefit is Pedro Pedroza, a Cornell University would-be senior whose sister graduated from Harvard in 2004, earned two master's degrees, and became a resident by way of marriage. Pedroza, who hopes to become a teacher, was detained in 2008 while traveling to Cornell from Chicago on a Greyhound bus. He had encountered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on previous bus trips; they waived him on after seeing his Mexican documents and college ID. Not this time. Pedroza is now living with his parents in Chicago and awaiting a deportation hearing.

Dream Act proponents say young immigrants should have a chance to obtain legal status, especially since the U.S. faces a shortage of skilled professionals. They would generate between $1.38 trillion and $3.6 trillion over their work lives, estimates the North American Integration and Development Center, a research group at the University of California in Los Angeles. Opponents say the act would spur more illegal immigration. In the past, Democrats overwhelmingly backed the act; some Republicans did, too. Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) is a co-sponsor. Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who lost his reelection, has said he would vote for it as a standalone bill.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is navigating the complications of applying to medical school. Her undocumented classmates have left Harvard. Four of them, like Pedroza's sister, have enrolled in graduate programs. Two couldn't find legal employment in the U.S. and left the country, knowing that U.S. law requires them to wait 10 years before applying to return. "The world that Harvard provides is so privileged, and when you're thrown out without any ability to use the education you are provided, it's overwhelming," Gonzalez says. "I think all of them have seen graduation as the hardest thing they've ever had to do."

The bottom line: Even an Ivy League degree won't help undocumented students after graduation; Senator Reid vows to try to fix that in the lame-duck session.

With Laura Litvan

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