As the Senate prepares to vote on the DREAM Act, there's rarely a day that those of us here at NCRCR don't find ourselves thinking about the intersections between race, class, nationality and legal status and how these issues are addressed in the courts. As such, the issues faced by undocumented students trying to get an education are of particular interest. Through no act of their own (and more often than not an act of economic desperation on the part of their parents), thousands of smart and talented young people graduate high school in the U.S. each year and, because of their immigration status, find themselves ineligible for the federal loans that “finance” the college educations of their documented peers. To make matters worse, several states have passed laws making these undocumented students ineligible for the “in-state” reduced tuition rate at public universities and colleges available to legal residents of the state. Because these undocumented students’ families usually do not have the means to throw down $20-40,000 per year on tuition, the students hit a dead-end, ostensibly ensuring their inability to enter an increasingly competitive job market in what is, in some cases, the only country they have ever known.
There are laws that make this situation questionable: Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination based on race or national origin, and the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution promises the equal protection of a state's laws to any person within that state’s jurisdiction and allows the courts to enforce the principle that “all men are created equal.” In support of this constitutional right, the Supreme Court held in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe that undocumented immigrants were entitled to a free and equal K-12 public education. This key ruling was based on the premise that everyone, regardless of immigration status, has the right to an education. With this decision states could no longer withhold a state-funded, public primary and secondary education to undocumented children. When it comes to college, however, no effort has been made to address this issue on a federal level, and the battle over access to an affordable college education for undocumented students is being fought in the courts. In a recent victory for these students, the California state Supreme Court ruled that undocumented students who attended at least three years of high school in California must be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities. This can amount to a difference of up to $12,000 per year, which certainly makes trying to get a college education less daunting. Nine other states have similar legislation, though lawsuits are pending in two states in order to challenge these laws -- but each ruling in favor of such laws adds legitimacy to the right of all young people in the U.S. to get a quality and affordable education.
If the DREAM Act passes, undocumented students will also have a pathway to pursue U.S. citizenship after graduating from college or a trade school. As ever, progress is gradual and the courts continue to play an important role in ensuring that progress is made.
(Photo by Gord McKenna.)