Act is affordable and fair incentive

by Leonardo Castaneda

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 130, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as the Dream Act, into law he unleashed a storm of controversy. The new law has simultaneously brought hope to the college dreams of undocumented students and become a nightmare for Republican assemblymen.

The law is aimed at undocumented students who attended high school in California for at least three years, and either graduated or earned a GED diploma. To be eligible for the act, students must also sign an affidavit promising to apply for citizenship as soon as possible. The Dream Act allows students who meet these requirements to apply for the state’s Cal Grant financial aid program. That doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get money. It simply means they have the same chance to get help as any other student who lives in California.

The Dream Act is not only fair; it makes good financial sense. It is fair to undocumented students who are simply trying to get an education in the country they’ve built their lives in. It also makes sense for a state not producing enough educated workers to remain at the forefront of the tech and science industries of tomorrow.

To understand the importance of the Dream Act, we need to look at the students being helped. They are students who were brought to America as children, often too young to even know what was happening. They went to school, studied hard, even attended prom like any average student. Now they’re being told they don’t deserve help in paying for an increasingly expensive college education.

I’m not saying we should ignore the fact these students are here illegally. Ideally, they would all have come into the country legally. Unfortunately, most poor, ill-educated immigrants working minimum-wage jobs in America can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars in lawyer expenses and other fees to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that is the residency and naturalization process. As it stands today, it is an unreasonably expensive system where becoming a citizen can take close to two decades.

The reality is these students are here illegally, without any viable path to citizenship. We must decide what we are going to do about them. Are we going to sweep them under the rug, tell them, “Sorry and thanks for the cheap labor,” and effectively create a permanent uneducated lower class? Or are we going to help those students willing to learn get an education and become fully contributing members of society?

Maybe you think helping undocumented students is a nice idea we simply cannot afford. But the truth is, we can easily afford the Dream Act.

Because undocumented students are only eligible for Competitive Cal Grants after all eligible U.S. citizens have received money, there won’t be any real impact. The financial burden will, allegedly, be felt in noncompetitive Cal Grants. Eligible undocumented students in public colleges represent about half of 1 percent of the total student population. Even if all of them somehow received financial aid, it would only increase the number of Cal Grant recipients by about 2 percent. However, because some of the newly eligible students won’t apply or won’t qualify because of grades, the real increase will probably be less than 2 percent.

The Cal Grant system can afford that increase without taking money away from anyone else, because the program has historically run on a surplus. The California Student Aid Commission spokesman Tom Mays admitted the Cal Grant program ended the year with a record $38 million surplus. Since then, funding for Cal Grants has grown to $1.5 billion. While the state government itself is facing financial difficulties, helping undocumented students is something the Cal Grant system can afford to do.

In fact, we can’t afford not to. The Public Policy Institute of California recently announced it predicts a 6 percent gap by 2025 between the number of educated workers in California and the number of jobs requiring a degree. If the state can’t bridge the knowledge gap, those high-paying jobs will disappear. Instead of shunning undocumented students who could help close the gap because of where they were born, we should help them go to college. It isn’t charity; it is an investment into the economic future of California.

As immigrants and their children become educated, they are better able to become naturalized citizens, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entail. In a perfect world, these immigrants would have come here legally from the start. People trying to make a better life for themselves and their families should be able to do so in a legal, efficient way.

Until major immigration reform is undertaken at the federal level to make that dream come true, the Dream Act will have to do.