The Dream and Promise Act and Implications for Higher Education

By Jailene Acevedo and Jose Magaña-Salgado

Last week, in a historic vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6, which would provide a roadmap to citizenship for upwards of approximately 2.5 million immigrant youth known as Dreamers (including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) & Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders. While the legislation’s future in the Republican-controlled Senate is nebulous, the bill represents landmark legislation that provides a broader scope of relief than any Dream-like legislation before it. Beyond providing protection from deportation, the legislation implicates higher education in what it says and (importantly) what it does not. It does this in three ways: grants access to federal financial aid; uses higher education as a pathway to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status; but, fails to restore of states’ discretion to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students.

 

The Dream and Promise Act provides protection from deportation and the ability to work in the United States by granting an immigration status called conditional permanent resident (CPR) status. Individuals who obtain CPR status are treated as LPRs (the status before citizenship for most immigrants, colloquially known as a “green card” for essentially all purposes but naturalization). Functionally, this means that CPRs will have access to all forms of federal financial aid, including federal grants, loans, services, and work-study. This represents a marked improvement over previous versions of the Dream Act, many of which excluded beneficiaries from access to federal Pell grants and other grants. Access to Pell Grants represents a hard fought victory for immigrant youth and a universal acknowledgement that, like their U.S. citizen classmates, deserve investment in their education future.

 

Critically, the bill simultaneously provides an incentive to pursue higher education and the tools to achieve that education, maximizing the social and economic mobility of immigrant students. The bill allows individuals who obtain CPR status to convert into the more permanent LPR status (and onto an eventual roadmap to citizenship) by obtaining a higher education degree or completing at least two years at an institution of higher education. The bill’s higher education provisions work in tandem with each other, e.g. the bill’s access to federal financial assistance is critical for individuals to satisfy this track. Importantly, the bill also provides employment and military alternatives for those students who may be on non-traditional or longer educational paths.

 

Finally, here is what the final version of the bill does not do. Under federal law, states are prohibited from offering in-state tuition based on residency to undocumented students unless they offer the same tuition rates to all citizens, a provision enacted by Congress in 1996 to discourage states from helping immigrant youth. The provision is known as “Section 505” in the IIRIRA Act of 1996. Over twenty states and Washington, D.C. have found creative strategies around this provision to offer in-state tuition to immigrant students, but Section 505 nevertheless remains an unnecessary obstacle to in-state tuition and basis for questionable legal opinions against immigrant students. While virtually all previous versions of the Dream Act contained the repeal of Section 505, the Dream and Promise Act, sadly, does not, likely omitted to limit harmful amendments during the floor vote. A relatively uncontroversial provision, Congress should prioritize the inclusion of the repeal of Section 505 in future bills and any Senate companions.

 

Why this matters? Every year, nearly 100,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate from high school, representing a significant constituency that would benefit from the bill’s higher education and protection provisions (and many of whom graduating now were not able to apply to DACA prior to its rescission in September 2017). Research studies consistently demonstrate that postsecondary education can increase economic mobility and improve lives. Studies have also affirmed that the advent of DACA in 2012 and the prospects of being able to participate more fully helped spur a new generation of immigrant youth to pursue college and their dreams.

 

Colleges and universities serve as key generators of social and economic mobility for all students in our nation and since 2008, the majority of the new jobs created in the economy are going to college-educated individuals. This bill represents investment in immigrant youth for the future, a down payment for the continuing contributions to our nation’s economic engine. Thus, it is incumbent for the Senate to move forward, on a bipartisan basis, with companion legislation that both retains the much needed higher education provisions already in the measure in the Dream and Promise Act addresses its one higher education gap(s). In the interim, upwards of 2.5 million aspiring immigrants remain in limbo, waiting for Congress to act.

Jailene Acevedo is an undergraduate from the University of Michigan interning with the Presidents' Alliance this summer. Jose Magaña-Salgado is the Director of Advocacy and Communications for the Presidents' Alliance.