New York State Just Passed the DREAM Act. Here’s what that means.

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On January 23, the New York State legislature passed the Jose Peralta Dream Act — legislation named in honor of the late Senator Jose Peralta, a champion of undocumented immigrants who died suddenly last year and who originally introduced the act in 2013. This act is a significant win for immigrant rights in the realm of higher education, as it makes an estimated 146,000 DREAMers, or minors brought to the country by their undocumented parents, who attend New York public schools eligible for scholarships and financial aid that was previously unavailable to them.

The passage of this legislation is politically significant in and of itself, as it is the first pro-immigrant bill passed by the new Democrat-controlled state Senate after over a decade of Republican control. The act — which will specifically allow DREAMers who have attended a New York State high school for two years or more to be eligible for state-funded scholarships and financial aid to attend State Universities of New York (SUNYs) and City Universities of New York (CUNYs), and also establish a DREAM fund and commission to raise money through private donors to sponsor undocumented students who reside in New York to attend institutions of higher education — has passed in the state Assembly for the last six years but ultimately failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Thanks to the midterm elections that flipped the state Senate blue, the act has now passed both the Senate and Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he intends to sign the bill into law.

The benefits of such an opportunity are clear, as college degrees are crucial to economic success for DREAMers. “With or without work authorization, undocumented youth with a college degree earn more than those without,” according to the New York State Youth Leadership Council. The council also found that the average hourly wage for undocumented youth without a college education is $11.17, compared to $15.50 for those with a four-year degree, and that youth who had obtained work authorization through DACA maintained higher wages than those who did not ($13.90 as compared to $10.47).

Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that works to support immigrants’ and workers’ rights, has been advocating for the New York State Dream Act for years. While advocating for the act’s passage, the organization has also helped undocumented students look for other scholarships to provide aid in lieu of the state’s support. As one young DREAMer, Olivert, recently told Make the Road, while his family paid taxes, he still couldn’t receive state financial aid for college because of his immigration status. “We had to work really hard for me to pursue my dream of becoming a professional engineer and eventually have financial stability to give my family a more comfortable life,” Olivert, who is in his third year of college, said. “My father left everything behind just so I could have a better education,” he continued. “But unfortunately, he was injured on the job in 2016 and didn’t qualify for workers’ compensation. We are the only two living in New York City, while the rest of my family is back in Mexico, including my sister, who depends on us.”

The passage of this legislation, therefore, is game-changing for Olivert, who can now finish college thanks to support from the state.

Although this bill similarly references and benefits DREAMers, it is different from the DREAM Act that has failed to pass on the federal level. Currently, around 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects DREAMers from deportation and provides work authorization for children who were brought to the United States by their families before the age of 16. Though DACA offers temporary relief within each two-year period of enrollment, there is no path to citizenship that follows. The federal DREAM Act, therefore, seeks to provide green cards to DACA recipients, solidifying a path to citizenship. The DREAM Act does not directly address the issues of college access and tuition options for this population.

Though the New York State Dream Act doesn’t address green cards, it is still beneficial to DREAMers in the state and is part of a growing movement of blue states — including California, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota — that have already passed similar legislation to give undocumented students access to publicly funded financial aid. Efforts to ensure access to drivers’ licenses and other forms of ID have also been protected in a number of states, although activism around this issue is still ongoing in New York.

Ultimately, this legislation serves both as an important measure to protect immigrants on the state level and as a signal to other blue states for the kinds of protective laws that can be used to counteract some of the greater injustices being carried out by the Trump administration. Now, plans for more comprehensive health care support for Dreamers are also underway, and hopefully more legislation benefiting DREAMers will continue to pass in states across the country.

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Lauren Davidson
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