October 14, 2011
When they vote on their legislative agenda on Tuesday, New York State’s top education officials will focus for the first time on the contentious topic of illegal immigration.
The agenda, proposed by the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., to the Board of Regents, has as a top priority a proposal to push Congress to pass legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who go to college. Included in that legislation, known as the Dream Act, is a provision that would give students who are in the country illegally access to tuition assistance at city and state universities. The agenda is expected to be approved.
The lobbying effort would thrust the State Education Department into the heart of a highly politicized debate that has divided communities for years and spawned a hodgepodge of state regulations in response to the federal government’s inaction on reforming the country’s immigration laws. New York already allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed a similar measure into law in 2001; controversy surrounding it has threatened to derail his effort to gain the Republican presidential nomination.
In an interview, Dr. King said that the Regents’ strategy on the Dream Act would address one of the most significant roadblocks faced by an estimated 345,000 illegal immigrants who attend public schools in New York. By providing help with tuition and with residency documents, the federal law would allow those who graduate from college to strive for more than the menial jobs they must often accept because of their status. “It’s about making sure that students are able to fulfill their aspirations after they graduate from high school, which is something that’s currently not available to those who happen to be undocumented,” Dr. King said. In addition, he said, “it aligns perfectly with our college-and-career readiness goals.” Dr. King said that lobbying Congress would be the “first step” in a campaign that could progress to asking the State Legislature to do what California did just a few days ago: offer state-financed scholarships and aid to illegal immigrants attending state universities.
For now, the plan is to write to and visit the members of Congress from New York, as well as legislators from other states who could play decisive roles in the Dream Act’s passage. The bill, first introduced in 2000, has yet to gain enough support for passage. It would create a path to citizenship for certain young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, completed two years of college or military service and met other requirements, like passing a criminal background check.
For the past several months, Dr. King and the Board of Regents’ chancellor, Merryl H. Tisch, have taken an interest in addressing the needs of the state’s immigrant students, most of whom go to school in New York City. “These people are going to be citizens of this country some day, and we need to prepare them for a life of independence,” Dr. Tisch said.
On Wednesday, Dr. King announced an agreement to improve the services offered in city schools to students who are still learning English, like more access to certified teachers and to the language lessons to which they are legally entitled.
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group, said the Regents’ agenda was a natural evolution of a process begun years ago to refine the state’s policies regarding students who are not proficient in English. “It really brings the focus back to what the issue is about,” she said. “It’s about education, and it’s about our children.”
Some critics of immigration reform criticized the Regents’ plan as going too far. “This amounts to a much broader amnesty than the New York State Board of Regents wants to portray it,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which has called for reducing the levels of illegal immigration.
But Daniela Alulema, a board member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a supporter of access to higher education for illegal immigrants, said she hoped the Regents would eventually throw their support behind a version of the Dream Act introduced in the State Legislature in March. Among other things, the bill would give illegal immigrants access to tuition assistance and driver’s licenses, a provision that crumbled under intense criticism in 2007, after it was proposed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Ms. Alulema has pinned her hopes on state action. “The truth is, it’s very hard for something to happen in Congress because of the climate there now,” she said.