State Dream Acts from a Historical Perspective: The Case of New York

By Antonia Mardones*

Currently, one issue of major concern is undocumented immigrants´ access to higher education in the United States. This is particularly true for Latin American immigrants, because of their important presence within the immigrant population and their lower citizenship rates and lower attainment rates than other immigrants groups. (Flores, 2010). My current research analyzes how different State policies can have an impact on these immigrants’ enrollment, performance and completion of higher education, analyzing the cases of Texas, California and New York, as three states that have enacted in-state tuition legislations that have been popularly called “State Dream Acts”. This appellative comes from the fact that these State legislations are playing the role of making it up for the repeatedly rejection of the Congress to pass the Federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (Dream Act), first introduced to the congress on August 2001. This legislation would give undocumented immigrants who arrived to the country before the age of 16 and have been living here continuously during at least 5 years, several immigration benefits, as the right to access higher education at in-state tuition rates, and would provide a pathway towards legal residence. At this time, 15 States have passed “State Level Dream Acts”, but two of those, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, have revoked them afterwards.

The case of New York is quite special, because of its long history of providing higher education to undocumented students. In effect, the City University of New York (CUNY) until 1976 provided free education for everyone; only in that year did they begin charging tuition and establish a distinction between residents and non-residents, with undocumented students classified at that moment as non-resident. But in 1989, an executive order was issued by the New York City’s Democratic Mayor, Edward Norton, that permitted undocumented immigrants to enroll at higher education institutions at in-state tuition rates.

Differently from most other states, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was passed on 1996 –which amongst other things, restricted undocumented immigrants´ access to higher education by prohibiting states to charge in-state tuition rates to them – in New York, CUNY campuses continued providing in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, under the argument that the IIRIRA didn´t specify any sanction or consequence towards the institutions that didn´t follow its commands. In contrast, SUNY campuses –fearing a loss of federal financial student aid – reacted by no longer recognizing undocumented students as in-state residents.

It is quite interesting that what finally made CUNY reverse its inclusive policy were the political pressures that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11, pressures that were led by the Republican State Senator, Frank Padavan. It is necessary to underline now the important role that students and community organizations played on this stage, creating awareness of the seriousness of the situation that undocumented students would have to face. Different students associations were created, such as the Mexican American Student Alliance (MASA) and “CUNY is Our Future”, and also many civil right organizations were active on the political scene, as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Hispanic Federation, among others.

Finally, in 2002 the Senate Bill 7784 and Assemble Bill 9612, sponsored by the Democrat Adriano Espaillat, were introduced in New York’s legislative body. These legislations, which conform what is known as the “New York Dream Act,” made it legal for undocumented students to access university at in-state rate tuitions, if they accomplished certain requirements, such as: attending at least two years a New York high school, being a high school graduate or holding a New York GED, and applying to a SUNY or CUNY school within five years, plus filing an affidavit with that institution stating they would file an application to legalize their immigration status as soon as they were eligible. Curiously, this legislation was also supported by the Republican governor George Pataki, which some interpreted as resulting from his desire to win the immigrant vote for his reelection.

Although this law represents a great advancement, there are still many obstacles for undocumented students’ enrollment in higher education at New York. First, as a study by Nienhusser and Dougherty (2010) shows, there have been problems with the implementation of the law, whose responsibility falls on the CUNY and SUNY systems, for which these institutions have received no resources. Their college staff`s lack of knowledge and, on occasion, insensitivity towards undocumented immigrants, the limited information available for students, and their fear of applying because of their immigration status, are the main issues that constrain their enrollment.

Further, although this population is eligible to pay in-state tuition rates, they cannot apply for state financial aid, which forces many undocumented students to combine work with school or to enroll on a part-time basis and can lead to dropping out of college. Additionally, there are still many undocumented students that don´t classify for this benefit and are in a very vulnerable situation after finishing high school. Lastly, even if undocumented students are able to finish their post-secondary studies, this state legislation doesn´t assures them a path to citizenship, so they may have to face great difficulties to work and may be deported after graduation.

Undocumented student´s access to higher education needs to be guaranteed at the federal level with urgency. The truth is that most of the undocumented immigrants that apply for higher education were brought to the United States by their parents. Most of them have lived most of their lives in the United States and are not likely to return to their countries of origin, so this law is affecting people that can contribute to the American society. Although a federal Dream Act would be a big step towards a better integration of this community, a comprehensive immigration reform is still a debt that the actual government has towards the immigrant community.

* Antonia Mardones is a master’s student in the Anthropology Program at  Columbia University; a student in the Globalization, Migration, and Education Fall 2013 course; and an international student from Chile.

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