Imagine growing up with your classmates from elementary school through high school with the dream of one day going to college, only to discover that you are in fact an undocumented immigrant. This is an unfortunate reality for many students across the country who have plans to enroll in college, but cannot afford to because their immigration status prevents them receiving financial aid.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act or DREAM Act is bipartisan legislation that seeks to address the struggles faced by students who were raised in the United States and attended school in this country, but are not afforded the same opportunities as other young people because of their parents' immigration status. If their parents are undocumented, these students have no way to obtain legal residency.
The challenge for higher education is that we often find that a fair number of our students arrive at our institutions with a passionate desire to get a college education; however their immigration status prevents them from receiving federal, and in most cases, state financial aid. This makes obtaining a college degree financially beyond their reach. These DREAMers simply want a chance to achieve what so many other Americans dream of achieving: a college degree, a good career and the personal satisfaction that comes from obtaining a college degree.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, through the DREAM Act, certain immigrant students who have grown up in the United States would be able to apply for temporary legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college. The Act would also eliminate a federal provision that penalizes states that provide in-state tuition regardless of immigration status.
DREAMers are individuals who meet the general requirements of the DREAM Act and they can be found all across the country. Many of our students at Saint Peter's University are DREAMers.
Last month the New Jersey Senate passed a bill to allow undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and enable them to qualify for state financial aid. Last week Governor Christie reacted to allegations that he is flip-flopping on his support for the legislation.
Some argue that we should not use taxpayer money to subsidize tuition for "illegal" immigrants. There is also the argument that individuals who disregard our nation's immigration laws should not be afforded the same opportunities as those who put the effort into gaining legal status.
The DREAM Act would enable thousands of students in New Jersey to reach their maximum potential and contribute to the state's economy. New Jersey has already invested in these students over the course of their K-12 education so this bill would enable them to give back to the state in an even greater way through their higher lifetime earning power.
These students have enormous economic potential that this nation surely could use. The failure to harness their creativity and their energy will prove to be one of those lost opportunities in the American story that we will regret and will haunt us for generations to come.
Furthermore, in every way except immigration status, these young people are as "American" as those born here in the United States. In many cases they have spent the bulk of their lives here, attended school here, worked here and their self-identity is inexorably tied into being American.
At Saint Peter's, we are fortunate to have a vibrant community that is enriched by young people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Indeed, as the only Catholic and Jesuit University in New Jersey, Saint Peter's is blessed to serve primarily first-generation college students of diverse backgrounds who wish to grow intellectually and become "men and women with and for others."
This year several of our students attended a Jesuit university outreach effort in Washington, D.C. and met with members of Congress to discuss the life and impact of DREAMers on our campus. This resulted in those students forming a group on campus that meets monthly to discuss immigration reform efforts and challenges. Regardless of one's political or religious affiliation, immigration reform is an important issue - economically, socially and ethically. I am proud of the efforts and the passion of our students, staff and faculty members on this issue.
As the president of a private university, I strongly support opening the door to federal and state financial aid programs for the DREAMers. Although many of these students would be likely to enroll in public institutions due to financial constraints, I would like to see as many DREAMers as possible on the Saint Peter's campus. It is essential to provide them with the opportunity for a college education. It is the right thing to do. It is the just thing to do. It is the Christian thing to do.