Expert Commentary

Unauthorized alien students: Issues and “DREAM Act” legislation

2012 report by the CRS summarizing the proposed immigration reforms on permanent residency status for unauthorized alien students in the United States.

Student in college campus (iStock)

On June 15, 2012, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a memorandum concerning undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country before the age of 16. It stated that if they had lived in the U.S. for five consecutive years and were either in school, had received a high-school diploma or GED, or had been admitted to a university, they could be considered for protection from deportation and would be able to apply for two-year work permits. The Migration Policy Institute estimates the number of those eligible at 1.76 million.

Public education in the U.S. is open to unauthorized aliens through high school. Higher education is more difficult to pursue, in part because of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which bars states from offering immigrants “postsecondary education benefits,” including in-state tuition. Legislation was put before Congress in 2010 and 2011 to repeal this provision and enable some unauthorized students to become legal permanent residents.

A 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Unauthorized Alien Students: Issues and ‘DREAM Act’ Legislation,” used data from Congressional records and from the Migration Policy Institute to estimate the impact of proposed immigration reform on millions of undocumented students currently in the United States. Called the “DREAM Act,” the proposed legislation would be more inclusive and permanent than the more narrow deportation relief offered under the Obama administration’s order, which the President notes is only “temporary” in nature. Data from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) was included in the report.

The report states:

  • If the 2010 DREAM Act had been enacted, more than 2.1 million individuals would have been eligible to apply to become long-term permanent residents. “This total included estimates of individuals who, on the date of enactment, would already have met the substantive requirements under the bill for conditional status (or for both conditional status and the removal of the condition), as well as estimates of individuals who, on the date of enactment, would have met some, but not all, of the requirements for conditional status.”
  • Of the 2.1 million eligible to apply, approximately 934,000 were children under age 18 in elementary or secondary school.
  • Based on past trends, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that approximately 825,000 (38%) of those eligible under the legislation would achieve lawful permanent status.

The report concludes with a summation of the arguments on both sides of the issue: “Advocates for unauthorized alien students argue that many of them were brought into the United States at a very young age and should not be held responsible for the decision to enter the country illegally…. Many of the students have spent most of their lives in the United States and have few, if any, ties to their countries of origin…. Opponents argue that granting benefits to unauthorized alien students rewards lawbreakers and thereby undermines the U.S. immigration system.”

Tags: Latino, Hispanic, higher education, campaign issue

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