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Education Could Change Dramatically Under Immigration Reform

Buoyed by unprecedented Latino turnout on election night, political leaders in the nation’s capital are showing early signs of increased cooperation on immigration reform. While the new conciliatory tone has yet to shed any light on policy specifics, new rules that will affect the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country could have profound implications.

Access to federal grants and loans, work authorizations, and feelings of inclusion—items vital to expanding the educational and professional opportunities of undocumented immigrants —hang in the balance. 

Not since 2007, when President George W. Bush fell short of implementing comprehensive immigration reform, has Congress been truly poised to consider a new set of laws that could overhaul the country’s byzantine immigration policy. In a press conference held the day after the election, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to tackle immigration reform in the next Congress. However, any such initiativewould likely require re-opening many of the same issues that eventually doomed the 2007 effort, like guest worker visas, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants without criminal records, and relaxed rules on entry for highly skilled foreigners. To get these provisions,  Hill insiders say unpopular compromises, like a fence running the length of the U.S.-Mexican border, would likely have to be made to bring House and Senate Republicans on board.

Republicans, reeling from a disappointing election season in which they failed to win the White House and the Senate despite favorable political odds, are displaying preliminary support for comprehensive immigration reform. In an interview yesterday with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was “confident” a deal could be brokered. Meanwhile, key media personalities who hold sway among Republican voters softened their stance on immigration. Fox News host Sean Hannity announced on his radio program Thursday that he has “evolved” on the issue and now favors a “pathway to citizenship” for law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

Experts who study the intersection of immigration and education say updates to federal immigration law are urgently needed. While piecemeal action has been taken at the state and local level to ease some of the obstacles undocumented immigrants face, a majority of this population has received little relief.

On the federal level, President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, which took effect August 15. It offers roughly 800,000 undocumented residents who satisfy certain criteria a two-year work permit and a deportation reprieve for that period of time. Sarah Hooker, a policy analyst at D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, says DACA has “huge implications for students” because it grants them legal status in the country without risking deportation. Fewer than 5,000 applications have been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The work permit provision is particularly important for college students who are undocumented, Hooker says. Because DACA does not provide access to federal loans and grants, such students rely on private grants and income earned to finance their studies. For students affected by DACA who graduate from college, formal job opportunities that were not available are now possible.

Thirteen states, including Maryland, Texas and California, have enacted laws that grant undocumented students in-state tuition at higher education institutions. While those actions dramatically lowers the cost of attending school, the usual routes toward managing college finances for citizens—Pell grants, Stafford and Perkins loans—are out of the question for undocumented immigrants.

“It’s still very expensive to pay for in-state tuition without any scholarships or loans,” says Hooker. “Undocumented students may be showing up with thousands of dollars in cash to pay for their tuition.”

Unlike most college-bound students, undocumented immigrants cannot submit FAFSA forms, the federal application most colleges and universities use to assign students aid. Still, there are cases of private institutions using funds to offset tuition expenses for such students. Public institutions are different, says Dan Hurley of American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Though they recognize “the economic value and social equity of facilitating college access for undocumented students,” he says, state universities and colleges can only use private dollars to help undocumented students carry the load financially, and those instances are rare.

A Republican-backed bill called Startup Act 2.0 would take a different tack toward higher education, granting green cards to international students who graduate in the STEM fields. But the proposed law does not address undocumented students.

Comprehensive immigration reform could also overtake legislation enacted by conservative-leaning states that targets undocumented aliens. In 2011, Alabama passed a bill that among other things asked K-12 schools to document the legal status of students. Though that portion of the law was struck down in August by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, other provisions remained, like the provision enabling state law enforcement agents to inquire about the immigration status of people they stop. Similar laws in Arizona and Alabama are on the books as well, and were upheld by the Supreme Court—with the caveat that such policies might need to be revisited once they actually go into practice— and the 11th Circuit court. Congressional legislation clarifying these issues could normalize the extent to which states can consider the legal status of their residents.

Overhauling federal immigration policy can tie into education in other ways, says Hooker. “Any type of policy change that would make it easier for members of a family to work and earn a higher wage would probably also help with keeping students in school,” she said. Immigration experts say high school dropout rates are prevalent among Latinos and other immigrant communities in part due to the economic hardships their families face. In mixed-status families, where younger members were born in the U.S. and are legally able to work, parents who struggle financially may make their children choose between school and a job.

The immigration bill most directly connected to education, the Dream Act, is also likely to be revisited by national legislators. The bill nearly became law in December of 2010, when a lame duck Congress fell five Senate votes short of overcoming Republican opposition. President Obama has stated publicly he supports the Dream Act. But while the proposed law would enable many young undocumented aliens to receive permanent resident status, it would have little impact on the majority of the 11 million residents living in the U.S. illegally. A recent report from the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress found that just 2.1 million individuals are eligible for consideration under the Dream Act. Of course, congressional infighting could make all these changes for naught. Whether the post-election comity between the two parties sticks remains to be seen.



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