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Congress: Where the DREAM Goes to Die?

As chances dim for the DREAM Act's passage, college campuses emerge as the latest immigration battleground.

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 6:00 AM EST

High-profile university officials have joined the fight as well, with leaders from the University of California system, Harvard, MIT, and other universities lobbying for the DREAM Act's passage. While political gridlock is likely to continue in Washington, the university and student-led advocacy has helped advance a bill in California that would extend state financial aid to undocumented students. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—though himself an immigrant—has vetoed the legislation twice, but it is expected to pass in the early months of incoming Democratic Governor Jerry Brown's administration.

Conservatives have attacked such measures for taking admission spots away from legal citizens and saddling taxpayers with the costs of educating the undocumented population—even accusing university administrators of violating the law by harboring immigrants. Kansas attorney (and secretary of state-elect) Kris Kobach—the mastermind behind Arizona's harsh immigration law—originally defended the out-of-state students who sued the state for offering in-state tuition. Malkin has attacked sympathetic school administrators like Berkeley's Chancellor, Robert Birgenau, for skirting federal law in defending the campus' undocumented population. "Hiring, recruiting, and harboring illegal aliens are all federal felony offenses…the chancellor has now signaled that his campus will look the other way at federal immigration law to assuage a bunch of hungry open-borders zealots."

And a handful of conservative states are now moving to restrict undocumented immigrants' access to public education. Georgia passed legislation denying in-state tuition to undocumented students, joining Arizona and South Carolina. Last week, the Georgia Board of Regents voted to prohibit undocumented students from attending the state's most selective public universities—even though they make up less than 1 percent of the student population. The vote came months after a student at Georgia's Kennesaw State University was threatened with deportation after committing a minor traffic violation in March. University officials rushed to the student's defense, successfully convincing federal officials to let her complete her studies before moving ahead with deportation proceedings.

The move elicited a fierce backlash from conservatives who accused the student of exploiting the system and the university of bending to political pressure. "Most citizens really don’t care how much 'potential' the young lady has," wrote a local news columnist. "They’ve bent over backwards to bring her back when I doubt they’d be doing the same if she didn’t have the backing of various Latino activist groups."

Critics of California's system have similarly argued that public universities are taking admission slots away from legal citizens and wasting taxpayer resources on students who will remain undocumented after graduation. "As a graduate of UC Davis myself, I find it somewhat troubling that the administrator of the UC system and other state schools would be working overtime to encourage the granting of seats to [undocumented] students," says Jon Feere, legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls. "U of C should be trying to create a student body that will be able to legally find employment upon graduation."

Advocates for these students admit that post-graduation employment prospects for undocumented college graduates remain murky. Such students have at times been able to carve out a path for themselves as independent contractors or consultants for nonprofit agencies, for instance, Berkeley administrator Mejia says. But, he adds, others have been forced to take work as waiters and other low-wage jobs, despite their college education. Such harsh realities also make it clear that state and local efforts can go so far to help the undocumented in the absence of federal action.

And though undocumented students may be outing themselves in growing numbers, many are still loathe to disclose their status to university officials or other authorities—particularly at a time when deportations reached a record high. "Most of the students don't know what's going to be triggered once they let someone know," says Mejia. "It's a de facto 'Don't ask, Don't tell' policy.'"

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