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Legislation Would Give Some Illegal Immigrant Children Permanent US Residency - 2002-09-26

A diploma may be the ticket to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants in the United States. Proposed federal legislation would grant illegal immigrant minors with a high school diploma permanent resident status, which is an important step toward becoming a citizen. The federal legislation builds on some already existing state laws.

Edgar came to the United States illegally from Mexico as an infant in the early 80s. Today he's a student at the University of Houston studying electrical engineering. But he is having trouble building a life for himself. As a non-citizen without proper documentation, he will not be able to work in the United States once he graduates. He's already had to turn down an internship offer from the U.S. apace agency, which only employs citizens.

"I'm getting close to being a junior and I need some experience of some sort in my field and I have to wait. I have to keep waiting," he said.

Still, Edgar counts his blessings. Texas is one of a handful of states that allow illegal immigrant minors to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities, despite their citizenship status. Edgar's education would cost thousands of dollars more without that law.

"But there's other young people who are not as fortunate as I am who maybe could not get a scholarship, could not find the $12,000 a semester to pay for school. And instead of going to school, they're doing something else and their dream was really to come to school. And these kids are not. I'm not talking about delinquents here. I'm talking about top ten, top five percent of their class, even valedictorians that I know that have been denied," he said.

Each year, an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools and they could be just as fortunate as Edgar, if the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act becomes law. The so-called DREAM Act, which is making its way through the U.S. Congress, takes the Texas law a step further. It would grant permanent resident status to illegal immigrant minors once they graduate from high school and make it possible for them to become U.S. citizens. If it passes, Edgar could start working in his chosen field. And that's the way it should be, according to Texas State Representative Rick Noriega. He sponsored the Texas law which allows illegal immigrant minors to pay in-state college tuition. Mister Noriega says children should not be punished for their parent's decision to come to the United States illegally.

"If a kid's been here since age three through no fault of their own and they perform well, they're doing all the things they should do, they go on through college, there's no reason why we should not acknowledge that outstanding performance and provide for basically earning your citizenship."

But DREAM Act supporters recognize attitudes toward immigrants have changed since September 11 and proposals to ease immigration restrictions are attracting more opposition. Some is coming from the Federation for American Immigration Reform. According to its Executive Director Dan Stein, the DREAM Act is a logical next step after the 1982 Supreme Court decision which gave undocumented children access to free public education through high school.

"Well, if you're gonna provide 'em K through 12, well why not provide 'em you know tax payer subsidized college," he said. "And while we're at it, why don't we all provide them government jobs after they graduate. When does it end?"

Mr. Stein says the immigration system in the United States is broken and legislation like the DREAM Act is not the way to fix it.

"Programs like this DREAM Act, misnamed DREAM Act, they make it impossible to enforce immigration laws because they so blur the line, the moral distinction between right and wrong that they turn the INS inside out," he said. "If the advocates don't want to have immigration controls in this country, if they simply want to destroy them entirely, then they ought to just come out and say it instead of just doing this incrementalism that so undermines the process."

A U.S. Senate committee has approved the DREAM Act and it now awaits a vote before the full Senate. A similar measure is making its way through the House.