[Ed. Note: On Wednesday, the California Senate passed AB131, one half of the California DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to apply for public aid. The bill will now go to the Assembly, which has previously approved it.]
In a seminal poem tied to the very early years of the civil rights movement, Langston Hughes wrote: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Just ask the estimated 24,000 undocumented students who graduate each year from California's public high schools. Most of them -- English-speaking students who grew up in this country and call America their home -- have difficulty pursuing higher education. It is not because they don’t want to; it is not because they lack will or talent. On the contrary. These students aspire to be doctors and lawyers, engineers and teachers. But their dreams are dashed, their future limited, because they lack the legal status to qualify for financial aid. They came to America without documents as minors and, through no fault of their own, are being punished for it.
Congressional leaders in Washington tried to right this wrong. A bipartisan bill called the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act was introduced in the summer of 2001, just a month before the September 11th attacks. Ten years later, the bill is still stalled in Congress, and bipartisanship is tougher to come by. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), in particular, no longer supports the bill he originally co-introduced. Meanwhile, individual states have wrestled with the issue.
Unlike most states, California allows undocumented students who graduate from public high schools to pay in-state tuition at the Golden State’s public colleges and universities. However, they are still not eligible for financial aid.
Over the latter half of the past decade, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed five different bills designed to offer some form of financial aid to undocumented students. Progress finally came this year, when state assembly member Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) introduced the California DREAM Act in two bills.
AB 130 grants undocumented students who qualify for reduced in-state tuition access to $88 million in private scholarship aid. It was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in July. Now, students await the fate of AB 131, the more contested measure of the two that would cost somewhere between $32 to $35 million annually. AB 131 would grant undocumented students who qualify for reduced in-state tuition access to Cal Grants, community college fee waivers, and other public grant and scholarship programs, which award far larger aid amounts.
Opponents have raised questions about how California can afford the expense while the state struggles through a financial crisis. According to Cedillo, about $13 million is already budgeted as Cal Grants funding for qualifying students who can't currently access it. The difference, Cedillo said, would come from other sources.
But a larger issue, a greater principle, is at stake here. Everyone benefits when students earn their college degrees. That’s because when it comes to education, a short-term expense is really a long-term investment.
I was the beneficiary of an investment made by administrators, teachers and parents at Mountain View High School, where I graduated in 2000 - before “undocumented students,” “DREAM Act,” “AB 130” and “AB 131” became parts of the educational lexicon.
I was born in the Philippines. Hoping for a better life for me, my mother sent me to America to live with her parents when I was 12. Four years later, while applying for a driver’s permit, I found out that I was undocumented, and my Mountain View High School family helped me navigate a starker reality. Since I could not apply for financial aid, Pat Hyland, my high school principal, and Rich Fischer, my high school superintendent, scrambled to secure my continued education.
Fortunately, at around the same time, a parent from the school district, Jim Strand, created a scholarship fund for high-potential students who are usually the first in their family to go to college. Then and now, the MVLA Community Scholars program does not ask its grantees for their immigration status.
With the help of Pat, Rich and Jim, I graduated from San Francisco State University and immediately embarked on my journalism career. They own a part of whatever success I’ve become.
And American citizens like Pat, Rich and Jim are at the heart of the conversation I’ve helped spark at Define American, which seeks to elevate how we talk about immigration in a country founded and replenished by immigrants. They invested in one life - the kind of investment that the full passage of the California DREAM Act will guarantee, not just for undocumented students but for the entire state.
In an America that dares us to dream big, no dream should be deferred.
Jose Antonio Vargas is the founder of Define American. He was formerly a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, where he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.