News / USA

Illinois DREAM Act Becomes Law Amid Immigration Reform Debate

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn celebrates with students and supporters after signing the Illinois Dream Act into law at a Latino neighborhood high school in Chicago, Aug 1, 2011
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn celebrates with students and supporters after signing the Illinois Dream Act into law at a Latino neighborhood high school in Chicago, Aug 1, 2011

The Illinois DREAM Act, recently signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn, gives undocumented immigrant students access to privately funded college tuition assistance.  Illinois, a state with one of the highest populations of illegal aliens, is the latest to pass such a measure.  But lawmakers in other states, most notably Maryland, are working to stop similar legislation.

One student's story

Noor is a recent college graduate who lives in suburban Chicago.  Originally from Pakistan, she came to the United States with her family more than a decade ago.  Since that time, she has been an undocumented immigrant, trying to navigate through life and a college education.

"My parents have paid practically every dollar out of their own pockets.  It seems archaic, but because I couldn't work, they had to do it for me.  I didn't get any student loans, any financial aid at all.  They had to pretty much work day and night to put me through school," Noor said.

Why it's important

Even though she won't benefit from the program, Noor is an enthusiastic supporter of the Illinois DREAM Act.  It gives illegal immigrants like her a way to receive privately funded financial aid to help pay for the high costs of college tuition.

"We can't get student loans or anything like that, so we are like at a standstill.  Our lives are pretty much on hold until we are legal.  So for people like us, this is extremely important," she added.

Illinois is the latest state to draft legislation giving undocumented students an opportunity to complete a higher education.  The Illinois DREAM Act creates a commission that will oversee the distribution of financial aid to applicants.  

Opponents

The measure enjoyed bipartisan support when it passed in the state legislature earlier this year.  But Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says her organization opposes it.

"This opposition doesn't come from trying to punish the kids or students for the sins of their parents, but rather not reward the parents for illegal activity.  With the DREAM Fund commission, specifically in Illinois, although the money is coming from private funds, the funds are tax exempt," Williamson said.

And Williamson says opposition against similar measures in other states throughout the country is growing.

"Illinois is moving in the opposite direction of the rest of the country.  I believe that there are 11 other states that have a version of the DREAM Act and I think in nine of them there are movements to get rid of it," said Maryland State Delegate Patrick McDonough.

Maryland example

In April, lawmakers in Maryland passed a law that would provide in-state tuition discounts under certain circumstances to undocumented students.

"It's a displacement of a citizen.  If they get a certain slot at an education institution or they receive a certain scholarship or benefit, that is money that is going to be displaced that could be available in these very difficult economic times to a family member or an American citizen," said McDonough, a Republican who opposed the measure in Maryland.

He spearheaded a successful petition drive in Maryland to suspend the legislation.  He says close to 75,000 people signed the petition.  The issue now goes before voters in a statewide referendum during next year's general elections.

"In Maryland, it's going to have a big impact.  It's going to bring out to vote a tremendous number of people, many of whom have never voted before.  It's going to affect our congressional and U.S. Senate races.  And I intend to run for the United States Senate against incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin and it's certainly going to have an impact on that race," McDonough added.

Legislation for a national DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, was first introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2001.  It passed the House of Representatives last year, but did not have the support necessary in the Senate to become law.  The legislation was reintroduced in May in response to President Barack Obama's call for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.  Lawmakers have yet to take up the measure.


Kane Farabaugh

Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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