U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is voicing his approval of federal legislation that would give undocumented high school students in the United States a legal avenue to attend college.
The proposal — introduced in Congress two weeks ago as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act — would permit undocumented individuals who entered the United States before turning 15 years old to obtain conditional permanent residency in order to attend college or a trade school or to serve in the military.
Before being given the tentative residency, participants in the program must graduate from high school, live in the United States for five consecutive years, have a clean criminal record and show good moral character.
Like his Democratic predecessor, Ken Salazar, who voted for the same legislation in 2007 when it was up for consideration, Bennet wants Colorado students who were children when they entered the country to have a shot at higher education, according to Michael Amodeo, spokesman for the senator.
“Michael (Bennet) believes that students with long-standing ties to the U.S., who have graduated from our high schools, demonstrate good moral character, and exhibit great potential and ambition, should be given the opportunity to pursue a college education or enlist in our Armed Forces,” said Amodeo when asked about Bennet’s support for the legislation.
The senator’s support of the DREAM Act points to his past dealing with issues facing immigrant students in Denver, according to advocates who worked with Bennet when he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, his job before Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter picked him to fill Salazar’s term in the Senate in January.
“In the past Bennet understood the importance of immigrant students’ being able to achieve their full capacity,” said Marco Nuñez, a community organizer with Padres y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youths United), a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of the undocumented in the Denver public schools, where 55 percent of students are Latino and the graduation rate is 52 percent.
Bennet’s position on the measure is good news for supporters of the DREAM Act, who have been trying to get versions of the proposal approved since 2001.
In 2007 the legislation came eight votes shy of the 60 needed to prevent Senate filibuster. During that time, then-Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, a Republican, voted against the measure. His seat is now occupied by Sen. Mark Udall, the Eldorado Springs Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation when he was serving in the House.
Rep. Jared Polis, the Boulder Democrat who now sits in Udall’s old 2nd Congressional District seat, is co-sponsoring the the DREAM Act legislation in the House. In a recent press statement, Polis, who once served on the Colorado Board of Education, said, “These kids are as American as anyone else, but for too long they have had their dreams shattered by an education system that ignores their good grades and hard work.”
Said Nuñez of Padres y Jovenes Unidos: “This is about giving talented, bright students and opportunity to contribute to their communities.” He also noted that more students in higher education would boost state revenue. “Immigrants that due arrive at an early age, they go though entire public education here in Colorado. It’s not pragmatic to expect they go back to Mexico and apply to a university. That’s just not the reality.”
If the DREAM Act makes it through the House and Senate and President Obama signs it, students applying for temporary residency status under the legislation will be given six years to complete either two years of military service or two years at a college or trade school. If they don’t, their residency will be taken away and they could be deported.
But if participants do complete their obligation in the time period, they will also be given a chance to apply for citizenship in the United States where none existed before, making the DREAM Act the first major immigration reform measure to be considered by Democratically controlled Congress since Obama took office.
“We believe the measure isn’t a substitute for broad immigration reform, but this is definitely a key component of it,” said Laura Anduze, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a national advocacy group that has lobbied for the DREAM Act by bringing undocumented students to Washington, D.C., to talk with lawmakers.
“A lot of these students came here as infants, and they don’t know anything other than United States culture. When you meet a lot of the students, they’re the most American kids you’ll ever meet,” Anduze said. “They participate in a lot of community groups, and they’re valedictorians in their classes. They’re amazing. … Really their only difference is that when they were children, their parents chose to come to the United States We shouldn’t punish an innocent child for something that is out of their control.”
While the DREAM Act may not see legislative action until the fall, organizations like La Raza and Padres y Jovenes Unidos will be working to spread the word about the proposal and encouraging supporters of the measure to contact their congressional representatives.