Each year, thousands of undocumented young children are brought to America by their parents. They are raised here, and as Obama stated in the 2012 State of the Union Speech, “They are American through and through.” These kids did not make the decision to come to this country, but they were integrated and Americanized- often to the point of no return. As of now, they have no chance to become legal without marriage- even if they are of great moral character. Despite societal blockades, they are here to stay, and they are accomplishing great things. Denying these minors equal opportunity in education not only prevents them from being able to assimilate successfully, but it deprives children of a fundamental right.
In 1982, the Supreme Court decided that undocumented children deserved a free K-12 education, no matter the circumstances, in a case called Plyer vs. Doe. The court decided that all children in the U.S., regardless of legal status, have a right to a public education for many reasons, such as: children should not be punished for decisions made by their parents, the denial of education for all would mean higher crime rates, and that the consequences of having an illiterate population living in the U.S. would be monumental (Drachman 2006:96). Thirty years later, we face another education rights conundrum with the Dream Act. The proposed bill would put undocumented students on a path towards citizenship contingent upon their completion of two years of college or military service.
But who are the students who would be affected? The numbers of students in this situation are enormous; 65,000 undocumented students graduate every year and 37,000 are Latino (Drachman 2006: 94). Many of these students have lived here all their lives, and some are valedictorians. Many are high achieving individuals who participate in community service in their spare time. One student rushed to help the Red Cross in the time of Hurricane Katrina (Perez, et. al 2010:45).
Yet we do not allow these students to pay in-state tuition to public colleges in their own state, or receive financial aid, making college education impossible for many. This is the case even though the students have not done anything to deserve these blockades. One student says, “We’re not criminals, or we’re not trying to steal anything from anybody. It’s just that we want to continue the dream that our parents started when they brought us here for a better future” (Perez, et. al 2010:38). Instead of continuing their education successfully, they are suffering from extreme discrimination and a sense of shame.
Americans have to decide if the fundamental right to education we granted in 1982 applies to higher education. As it stands, these undocumented kids are a wasted investment in today’s economy. We not only allow them to participate, but we require them to go to public school. We invest taxpayer dollars to give them not only a seat in a classroom, but a fighting chance with programs like ESL. Then, just before we can see our investment grow and feed back into the community, we cut off all resources and suffocate all potential for any return.
Today, college education is as essential for job opportunity as literacy was in the past. College is the literacy of today. Studies show that a college education affects many aspects of life the way literacy once did; college graduates are more civically engaged and even more likely to vote. Public education is supposed to be the ultimate enforcer of everyone’s equal chance at the American Dream, but as it stands, we have left out a caste of people. Let’s modernize a decision that we have already agreed on; let’s allow undocumented students the right to give back to this country.
Visit the New York State Youth Leadership Council to learn more about who these students are and how you can help!
Drachman, Edward. 2006. “Access to Higher Education for Undocumented Students” Peace Review 18:1, 91-100.
Pérez, William, Richard D. Cortés, Karina Ramos and Heidi Coronado. 2010. “Cursed and Blessed”: Examining the Socioemotional and Academic Experiences of Undocumented Latina and Latino College Students.” New Directions for Student Services 131:35-51. doi: 10.1002/ss.366.