New York State's "Dream Act": An Unnecessary Bill

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on March 19, 2012

The New York Times recently provided an update on efforts by New York State Democrats to enact their version of what is euphemistically mislabeled the "dream act". According to the Times, "Its goal is to help ambitious youths who were brought here as children and are American in all but the paperwork." More limited in scope than those that propose a "pathway to legalization", these draft bills present themselves as very narrowly conceived and concerned only with making "financial aid available to illegal immigrants at colleges and universities" in the state.

As it turns out, though, New York State may not need a bill for this purpose. The Times notes that, "New York … is one of a handful of states that allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at public universities. The City University of New York system has nearly 6,000 illegal immigrants enrolled at its schools, a spokesman said; the State University of New York does not track the immigration status of its students, according to its spokesman."

Moreover, one study by a supportive think tank noted that, "According to CUNY administration, an estimated 70 percent of undocumented students at CUNY were in four-year colleges and 30 percent in two-year colleges in the most recent semester. We assumed that the same held true statewide, and 70 percent of undocumented students currently in college are in four-year colleges."(p. 3)

These sets of reported facts are a bit ironic, if not paradoxical. Poster children advocates for the act like Lucy Allain, a "dream act" activist who confronted Mitt Romney, always assert that they can't afford college without in-state tuition rates and fellowship help. Yet simply reading past the headlines you will find her described as someone who is indeed currently in college.

The same kind of fact turned up in a recent Los Angeles Times article about Silicon Valley leaders who contribute money so that young illegal immigrants may "attend college, prepare for jobs and, when possible, find ways to legalize their status." That article features one Mario Lio, 23, an "undocumented civil engineering major at UC Berkeley [who] was unsure whether he would be able to finish school because of tuition and housing costs." Well it turns out that he did finish college and although he, "had to turn down graduate school in Pennsylvania because of the costs. He was eventually able to get into a master's program closer to home."

The point here is not that young adults brought to the United States as infants and small children have no legitimate claim on our sympathy or efforts to help them. They do. It is important to be clear, however, about the real nature of their circumstances, rather than rely on the narratives that are put forward in their behalf. Having to go to graduate school closer to home is not the same thing as being unable to go to school at all.

The political purpose of the New York Times editorial and story, however, is found in the story's lead: "With immigration still a contentious issue around the country, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republican lawmakers have maintained a noticeable distance from New York State proposals that would make financial aid available to illegal immigrants at colleges and universities."

The story suggests that the governor's silence may have something to do with "the possibility that his position could reverberate if he runs for president in 2016." Presumably, championing access to state and local scholarship funds for persons not legally entitled to be in the country might prove a drawback nationally.

The New York Times also reports advocates' hope to enlist two freshman Republicans from Long Island with growing Latino populations in their districts to support the measure, but each has their doubts. One of them, Lee M. Zeldin, whose district is more than 25 percent Hispanic, is quoted as saying he had "questions about whether it would help some students at the expense of others." He said "the government could also help immigrants by addressing areas like education, gang violence, foreclosures, and property taxes."

The other Republican, Jack M. Martins, whose district is 13.8 percent Hispanic, said "he wanted to make sure the Dream Act was targeted at immigrants who arrived as children."

He is right to worry. Like many versions of the "dream act" put forward at national and state levels, this one too is loosely and badly written and does nothing to mitigate the incentives it contains for further illegal immigration. It also suffers from a basis flaw in its premises. It is not narrowly tailored to those who were brought here illegally as infants and children.

But that isn't the only egregious difficulty in the bill as it is now written.

Next: New York State's "Dream Act" for "Children": Bait & Switch