Massah Keita, a Criminal Justice major at Mercer, knows she was born in Liberia, but can’t remember how old she was when she moved to the United States. Today, she is a citizen. Keita’s cousins however, who also arrived in the United States as children, are now fighting to stay because they are undocumented.
“It’s hard to see what they are going through. I always visit my family in Liberia, but my cousins can’t because they can’t leave the country,” said Keita.
The situation surrounding Keita’s cousins is not uncommon for those brought to the United States by their family members when they are very young. These children may attend elementary school without issue. However, by high school’s end, there are few options available. Even though community colleges accept undocumented students, their job prospects upon graduation are limited.
According to a study published by the Center for Immigration Studies on their website cis.org, there are over 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country: 400,000 of them live in New Jersey. Two percent or 1.3 million of those immigrants are school age children – 5 to 17 years old, and New Jersey holds four percent of the total.
The presence of undocumented immigrants and their rights regarding education has sparked a debate during this election cycle. This past June, President Obama announced that his administration would end the deportation of undocumented young people in the US who met certain criteria contained in something known as the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act (short for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a legislative proposal that has been introduced, revamped, scrapped and introduced again since originally proposed by Senator Orin Hatch in 2001. The 2010 version of the bill was stopped by Senate filibuster. This past May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reintroduced the Dream Act and President Obama has sought to support it.
In every iteration the goals of the DREAM Act have been to offer a path to citizenship for people who were brought to the country as children, raised here as undocumented citizens, graduated from an American high school, and maintained good moral character. The various versions have shifted how old the child had to be at the time they were brought to the US and how old they could be to apply for temporary residency through the program (leading to permanent citizenship after a number of years and various other steps).
While opponents have long said that allowing undocumented students to go to college rewards law-breaking and potentially strains the education system, those who endorse the Dream Act contend that keeping students in school and producing a better educated populace ultimately reduces law-breaking and creates a more employable populace.
The questions surrounding the legislation have particular relevance to Mercer students. According to the 2010 American Community Survey 5-year data from the New Jersey State Data Center more than 71,000 or 19 percent of the Mercer County population is foreign born, but only 42 percent of them have citizenship status.
In 2010, presidents of 11 of the 19 New Jersey community colleges and the president of Rutgers signed a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to sign the Dream Act, according to an Associated Press article that appeared in NorthJersey.com on Dec. 7, 2010. Mercer was one of the colleges that signed.
In a recent VOICE survey of 100 Mercer students 47 percent knew at least one undocumented citizen. Sixty percent of those surveyed thought that undocumented immigrants should be able to pursue higher education and presently they are able to at Mercer, though what their job prospects are upon graduation is not clear.
According to Joan Guggenheim, Registrar office at Mercer, any student can pursue a higher education at Mercer County Community College.
“We don’t stop anybody,” said Guggenheim. “Any person can apply, even if undocumented. We assign them a number that will substitute for their Social Security Number at Mercer.”
A key question for public colleges that do admit undocumented immigrants is what to charge them, either an in-state or out of state tuition rate, or in the case of community colleges, an in-county rate. Guggeheim said that international students and undocumented students currently pay the out-of-state rate, but Mercer is working on a way to give undocumented students in-county tuition. “There is a plan to offer these students in-county tuition if they graduated from a Mercer County high school, but I don’t know when this change will be applied,” Guggenheim said.
On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced a change to the immigration policy during a speech given in the White House’s Rose Garden. According to the new policy, undocumented immigrants who came to this country under the age of 16 will be able to work legally and acquire documents such as a driver’s license. For now, the measure will delay the Department of Homeland Security from deporting these individuals. The aim of this measure, Obama said, was to make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient, and more just.” He noted that this is a “temporary measure and there is still time to pass the Dream Act this year.”
Obama’s new policy will stop deportation for those who came to the US before 16 years old and are today 30 and under. In order to be granted the right to stay, the eligible immigrant must also meet some other criteria such as being a graduate from a US high school and having no criminal records.
For Mercer student Massah Keita, Obama’s current action is encouraging, but the prospect Dream Act is even more enticing, as it offers a chance for her cousins to live their lives without the constant fear of deportation. She says,“The Dream Act is giving people hope.”