On Monday, the New York State Board of Regents voted to support legislation that would give undocumented immigrants the chance to receive state financial aid for higher education.
“It’s monumental. It’s unprecedented in New York,” said Natalia Aristizabal, a representative for Make the Road New York, an organization that advocates for immigrant rights.
Some 345,000 K-12 public school students in New York State are in the country illegally, according to an estimate by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a pro-immigrant nonprofit that has frequently testified before Congress on immigration issues. And while undocumented students nationwide can be admitted into colleges and universities, they are usually barred from receiving any federal or state financial aid.
As Queens is the city’s most diverse borough, with its highest concentrations of foreign-born immigrants, the law the Regents are proposing could potentially impact thousands of Queens students.
If it is passed, New York would join just three other states that offer public financial aid to undocumented students: Texas, California and New Mexico, according to Make the Road.
New York is already one of 11 states that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition, a 2011 study by the National Immigration Law Center reported.
According to the admissions office at Queens College, a CUNY school, for example, undocumented students can qualify for in-state tuition if they prove they have attended a New York high school for four years and sign a document that pledges they are seeking legal residency.
Yet ironically, in the current system, it is virtually impossible for many undocumented students to ever gain legal status.
The Regents’ proposed law would dramatically alter the circumstances of those undocumented students who struggle to afford higher education, even if granted in-state tuition fees.
Tania Mattos, a member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which was recently highlighted by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office for its pro-immigration work, said she was brought illegally into the country when she was 4.
Like many, she has pinned her hopes on the DREAM Act. Several versions of the federal bill, which would give undocumented high school and college students who entered the country before they were 16 a path to citizenship, have been proposed since 2001, but none have passed.
“We feel it’s really close,” Mattos said of the bill’s passage. “If you’re in college now, by the time you graduate, the likelihood of [the bill’s] passing is really high.”
But, as the Board of Regents’ move might indicate, the state government seems increasingly willing to do its part to provide some of the same benefits as the DREAM Act, regardless of that bill’s fate.
In addition to the Regents’ financial aid bill — called the Education Equity for DREAMers Act — the board also announced it is backing the New York State DREAM Act, a state version of the federally proposed bill.
Tim Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said the Regents would push hard to get the Education Equity Act passed in the next session of the New York State Legislature, and had already garnered significant support.
Mattos said her organization was now focusing as much on the passage of these state bills as on the federal DREAM Act.
Even if the New York DREAM Act were passed, however, it could not provide undocumented students a path out of illegality towards legal residency and ultimately, citizenship, as that power lies with the federal government alone. Instead, the state DREAM Act would allow undocumented young people in good standing to obtain driver’s licenses, New York State health insurance and jobs in the state government, among other benefits.
And while the ability to get state funding to go to college would be a huge step for New York’s undocumented students, the fact remains that as long as they’re illegal, they cannot be legally employed. Questions of legality are particularly at issue with jobs that would necessitate a college or university degree in the first place.
“That’s the sad reality. There are people that graduate and they can’t do anything with their degrees,” Mattos said.