Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why We Support the DREAM Act


By James Moeser and Andrea Bazán

In a program known as the UNC Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI), students at UNC-Chapel Hill make a three-year commitment to mentor Hispanic students at Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City. Students sign on as sophomores and work one-on-one with the high school sophomores through their graduation, preparing them to apply successfully for college.

We have seen first-hand the positive effects of this mentoring program on both the high school students as well as our own at UNC. Many of these young people have gone on to enroll in college, including some at Chapel Hill. Most, but not all of these students, are American citizens, but their legal status has not been an issue for the university. UNC’s concern has been its responsibility for the education of all North Carolinians, including the development of their full potential as human beings.

However, when students apply to the university, their legal status becomes a matter of grave concern. As non-residents, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition, and are not eligible for either federal or state need-based aid. The Office of Student Financial Aid has had to cobble together aid packages made up entirely of private funds. As a result, UNC has been able to admit only a handful of these promising students. Most of them are being left behind.

But now, it appears that the U.S. Senate is once again considering the passage of the DREAM Act. This bipartisan legislation has the ability to open the doors for our high-achieving Hispanic students, such as the ones in the SLI.

The version of the proposal under consideration by the Senate has been scaled back drastically to increase the chance of passage. Unfortunately, gone are the original provisions that would allow these students to pay in-state tuition. Also removed is any eligibility for federal student aid. Still, this proposal represents a small step forward.

The DREAM Act creates a path toward the ability to earn legal status for undocumented students who came to this country before the age of 16. The proposal has many pieces. Students must have lived here for at least five consecutive years, have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, and have been admitted to an institution of higher education.

We want to stress that this is not an easy path. After the required completion of two years of college or military service, the students will be eligible only for provisional legal status. They would not be eligible for permanent legal status for 10 years.

Some will argue that this proposal encourages more illegal immigration, but that objection has been met by the provisions which apply only to students currently in the U.S. Others will argue that Congress should wait until it can pass comprehensive immigration reform. Still others will argue that the proposal has been so watered down in attempts to win full bipartisan support that it does not go far enough. While we share many of those concerns, this is a case where we cannot let “the perfect” be the enemy of “the good.” In the absence of truly addressing our immigration challenges, passing the DREAM Act is the right thing to do.

Good people can disagree about the ethics and morality of the underlying issues involving immigration and legal status. Ultimately, for us, the best argument for the DREAM ACT is simply this: What best serves the needs of the State of North Carolina and the United States? In the competitive environment of this global economy, is it in our own interests to hold back a whole generation of one sector of our communities from reaching their full potential as job creators and tax payers? The DREAM Act provides an answer to this question. We hope the Senate will have the wisdom to do the right thing.
Moeser is Chancellor Emeritus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bazán is President of Triangle Community Foundation.