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Children of Undocumented Immigrants Pay the Price

June 2007
Children of Undocumented Immigrants Pay the Price

For the undocumented in America there is little doubt that the acts of migrants have direct consequences for their children. On November 7th, for instance, an astounding 71 percent of voters in Arizona passed a referendum which states that only U.S. citizens and legal residents are eligible for in-state college tuition rates, tuition and fee waivers, and financial assistance. These are kids brought by their parents to this country as young children, in many instances infants in their mothers' arms, and in every instance as children for whom the decision to come here was made without their participation. And yet, they are paying the price, perhaps with their futures. The same referendum would deny childcare to the U.S.-citizen children of undocumented parents. Yes, the child is a citizen of the United States, but voters concluded that to provide the child with care is to reward the parents for the sin of seeking a better life in America.

Even without new laws such as Arizona's, undocumented children already lead precarious lives in the United States. Take the "Wilson Four," for example. In 2002, a group of students from Wilson High School in Phoenix who won an international science competition were rewarded with a visit to Niagara Falls. As an appeals court recently concluded, they were subjected to illegal racial profiling when, at the Canadian border, U.S. immigration officials detained and initiated deportation proceedings against them. One of the Wilson Four, incidentally, has dreams of joining the U.S. Army to defend this country. But he will be unable to do so as long as he lacks legal status.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—which was made part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 passed by the Senate last year—would remedy this injustice. The bill would offer a pathway to conditional legal status for unauthorized youth who arrived in the United States before age 16, have been here for five years, and have graduated from high school or obtained a GED. Those who obtain conditional legal status would be eligible for permanent legal status—and, five years after that, U.S. citizenship—if they attend college or join the military. Moreover, the bill would allow states to offer these students in-state tuition rates. If the DREAM Act were passed, a Migration Policy Institute report estimates, 360,000 unauthorized high-school graduates age 18 to 24 would immediately become eligible for conditional legal status and about 715,000 more youth age 5 to 17 would become eligible in the future.

The DREAM Act has been debated for a decade. And for a decade opponents of the bill who argue it rewards the illegal acts of parents have won. There is, of course, a perverse logic to this argument. To absolve the child of the taint of a crime that the child did not commit is to give advantage to the one who did. Denying justice to the innocent child is, therefore, a way to extract punishment from the guilty parent.

Now that a new Congress has arrived in Washington, there finally is hope that justice will prevail. The STRIVE Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in March, incorporates the DREAM Act as well. Only Congress can and must decide whether or not federal law will let hundreds of thousands of children continue to suffer the consequences of parental acts over which they had no control.

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