Election 2008: The DREAM Act


By Max Baumgarten

It comes as no surprise that the 2008 election has become the primary political focus on most college campuses across the country.  While headline-grabbing, epoch-defining policy issues will strongly influence the election’s results, it would be a mistake to overlook how the election might shape the future of higher education. The 2008 election looms large at public universities across the country, where some students and administrators are waiting to see if the election results will influence the fate of the DREAM Act, a piece of proposed federal legislation that would provide select undocumented immigrants the opportunity to attend college and receive financial aid en route to securing legal status. 

Originally proposed in 2001, the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) was sponsored by broad bipartisan coalitions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill has undergone a series of revisions, all of which have outlined the same basic points.  If the DREAM Act were to pass, undocumented immigrants who have grown up in this country could gain legal status if they attend college or join the military. To qualify for the DREAM Act currently, an undocumented immigrant must:

  • prove that he/she has lived in the United States since the age of 15 or younger.
  • prove that he/she has lived in the United States for at least five consecutive years since arriving in the country
  • be between the ages of 12 and 30 at the time of the bill’s enactment
  • have graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED
  • demonstrate “good moral character,” defined as the absence of a significant criminal record

While some undocumented immigrants already attend public colleges, they are rarely able to graduate because of financial constraints. Under the provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented immigrants would be granted conditional citizenship for six years and would be expected to graduate from a two-year community college or complete at least two years of study at a four-year college.  This conditional citizenship would not make them eligible for Pell grants, but they would be able to receive student loans and apply for work-study opportunities in college. If a DREAM Act beneficiary meets the educational requirements, then he or she would be given a green card and would have the same rights of a resident alien – including the right to apply for permanent citizenship.

The bill is not without its detractors. Opponents believe that the legislation unfairly serves as a vehicle for political amnesty and provides illegal immigrants with unwarranted financial support. Jack Martin, the Special Projects Director of immigration-reduction advocates FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), disapproves of the DREAM Act because it “reinforces the image abroad that the U.S. will continue to accommodate illegal immigration. It is the wrong message to send abroad if we ever are going to be able to effectively deter illegal immigration.”  For its opponents, the DREAM Act has little to do with educational opportunities and is merely reflective of the nation’s faulty immigration policies.  Unsurprisingly, the bill consistently gets caught up in the highly volatile immigration politics jungle and has met legislative defeat time and again, most recently in October 2007.

The results of the 2008 election may change the mood in Washington and bring about a shift in the nation’s policy towards undocumented immigrants and higher education.  The president is able to influence national policy through his or her appointments (the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State carry out immigration policies), and he or she also has some degree of influence over Congress from the so-called “bully pulpit.” As Josh Bernstein, Director of Federal Policy at the National Immigration Law Center suggests, “having an active supporter of (the DREAM Act) in The White House would make a big difference.”   

Both presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have legislative track records that intersect with the evolution of the DREAM Act.  Understanding where the two candidates stand on the issue may help to provide a window into the future of the nation’s education policy as it relates to undocumented immigrants.

Barack Obama supported the DREAM Act in its 2007 incarnation as the junior senator from Illinois.  His legislative record seems to coincide with his proposed presidential agenda. On February 21, 2008, speaking in front of a live CNN audience in the Texas Democratic Primary Debate, Obama stated his unequivocal approval of the DREAM Act as a tangible step in immigration reform: “Something we can do immediately that I think is very important is to pass the DREAM Act, which allows children through no fault of their own, who are here, who have essentially grown up as American -- allow them the opportunity for higher education. I don’t want two classes of citizens here in this country, I want everyone to prosper. That’s going to be a top priority.” While only time will tell if Obama will continue to push the DREAM Act forward, the Senator from Illinois hasn’t given voters reason to suspect otherwise. 

In comparison with his Democratic rival, Republican John McCain has a more complicated history with the DREAM Act.   Known for his for his bipartisan approaches to immigration politics, McCain has helped provide undocumented students with higher education opportunities in his home state of Arizona. On the national level, McCain was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act in 2005, 2006, and 2007.  However, when the Senate voted on the proposed legislation in October 2007, McCain was not present for voting. In an interview McCain explained that his priorities have shifted. “I got the message, and the American people want the borders controlled first,” McCain stated. After America’s borders were secured to his satisfaction, McCain said, he would work on taking steps to prove the opportunities promised by the DREAM Act.  

Despite the difference of opinion between Obama and McCain, Bernstein believes that the DREAM Act “can happen regardless which of the candidates becomes president.” While this might just be wishful thinking on his part, the fact remains that both of the candidates have shown some willingness to provide meaningful educational opportunities to select undocumented immigrants. 
When college students head to the polls this November, they’ll make their voices heard on controversial national and global issues such as climate change and the future of America’s involvement in Iraq. And rightfully so. These issues are just two of the reasons why the 2008 election will be historic. Nonetheless, students should be aware of how the candidates’ policy preferences influence more than just what happens in Iraq; they also affect the future composition of college campuses across the country.