When undocumented immigrants enter the country illegally, they are consciously breaking the law, and should be held responsible for their actions. And they are: under the present system, undocumented immigrants can’t work legally, qualify for federal loans, or collect federal benefits.

But what about the kids they bring along with them? Those kids didn’t decide to immigrate illegally. All too often they are brought to the United States as babies or toddlers, where they grow up like any other child in this country: speaking English, playing basketball, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and watching The Simpsons. Just like you and me, they go to the Homecoming game and worry about their prom date.

Yet there is one major difference in the way undocumented students grow up in this country: They have almost no chance of ever going to college. And without college, they’ll never really emulate the teacher that inspired them, or graduate from law school, or swear the Hippocratic Oath to become a doctor. They go to sleep at night with no dream to look forward to. All because of a decision someone else made, and a policy that our lawmakers refuse to change.

How can this be?

In 1982, in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court considered whether Texas could deny school enrollment and withhold state education funds from undocumented children trying to attend elementary school. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan explained that the restrictions on educational opportunities needlessly targeted kids by imposing a “discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control.”  Before striking down the law, the Court made a rather unremarkable observation: children don’t decide to immigrate illegally because their parents make those decisions for them.

So why punish kids who are just trying to educate themselves for something they couldn’t control?

More than thirty-years after Plyler, undocumented students still face unique barriers to higher education because they can neither work legally nor qualify for financial aid. As a result, only a small fraction of an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year, including about 700 each year in Washington state, are able to pursue a college degree.

Perversely, in the very country where children are taught that hard work and determination can make any dream come true, these students are punished for being ambitious and diligent.

This glass ceiling traps high achieving students, who want nothing more than to go to college. These children, who have grown up and lived their whole lives in our communities, include Ivy League-bound honor roll students and star athletes, talented artists and homecoming queens, and of course, aspiring teachers, doctors, lawyers, and even would-be U.S. soldiers.

Perversely, in the very country where children are taught that hard work and determination can make any dream come true, these students are punished for being ambitious and diligent.

There is perhaps no worse nightmare than knowing you can do something (like go to college), but finding out that you are unable to do so because of someone else’s decision.

Given the increasing importance of a college education, the Washington Senate should do its part to end this absurdity by approving HB 1817, dubbed the Washington DREAM Act, which passed the House overwhelmingly on a bipartisan 77-20 vote. The DREAM Act would provide need-based financial aid to undocumented students who graduate from high school and want to go to college.  To qualify an immigrant must have graduated from a Washington high school and be on a pathway to citizenship.

 

Sen. Barbara Bailey

If passed, HB 1817 would restore every student’s right to finish her studies and to continue dreaming. But even though it passed the house by a wide bipartisan margin and apparently has the votes to pass in the senate, higher education committee chair Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-10, Oak Harbor) refuses to let the bill out of committee.

Senator Bailey argues that we can’t afford to pass the DREAM Act because there aren’t enough need grants to go around as it is.  But this is a red herring.  If it’s under funded now, we should fund it.  But that’s no reason to deny funding to the 700 undocumented high school seniors will graduate this year from Washington’s high schools. In fact, it would only cost $3.5 million to expand the program to include them.

Critics of both Washington’s proposed legislation, and the national version being considered in Congress, believe measures like the DREAM Act would reward and incentivize illegal behavior. But how can you incentivize a baby to immigrate illegally? How can you incentivize a 12-year old who has no control over where he lives or goes?

But policies like the DREAM Act don’t reward students for their parents’ illegal behavior; instead, they fix a system that currently punishes these kids for their parents’ decisions.  It’s not easy to get into college.  And it’s certainly much harder to do so if your parents are undocumented.  So why punish success?

But even if the DREAM Act did incentivize immigrants to cross the border just so that they could one day see their children go to college—are we not willing to risk opportunistic immigration to avoid creating a permanent underclass based on parentage?

As I look back on my life—brief as it is has been thus far—I sometimes wonder what could have been had my parents been born just 200 miles west, in Mexico or in Central America. But as it turns out, both my parents grew up in Cuba, and arrived in the U.S. yearning, as do all immigrants, for a better life.

My parents were never rich, but they worked hard. My mom was a substitute school teacher until she retired, and my dad was a dishwasher at Denny’s Restaurant until he retired.  Their jobs were much like what our Mexican and Honduran friends had growing up. But unlike many of them, my parents didn’t have to live in the shadows or worry about that knock on the door because Cubans get automatic residency upon touching American soil, whether or not they have permission to enter the United States. Cubans also get a pathway to citizenship. 

Although my siblings and I were born here, it would have been the same had my parents smuggled us to America like many of the other kids we grew up with: we would have been eligible for residency and a pathway to citizenship. So none of us ever had to worry that any of us would be taken away in the middle of the night.

So we just lived our lives.  And when the time came to go to college, I invoked the time-honored tradition of taking out government-subsidized loans, which enabled me to do so.  And I did it all over again to go to law school.

America has always prided itself on being the place where stories like this are still possible. But my siblings and I couldn’t have written this story by ourselves.In what other country could two refugees like my parents stitch a life together and raise four kids on the salaries of a dishwasher and a substitute schoolteacher? In what other country could those four kids go on to college, and from there go on to become a hard-working father of three like my older brother; or a public school teacher, like my sister; or a double Ph.D from Oxford University like my other brother; or an attorney, like myself.

America has always prided itself on being the place where stories like this are still possible. But my siblings and I couldn’t have written this story by ourselves. We had the good fortune of a policy that gives Cuban immigrants a fair shake to make it in this country, if they work hard.  And that’s all we needed: a fair shake. But the 700 undocumented Hispanics who will graduate from Washington’s high schools this year are not as lucky, even though they may be just as smart, hardworking, and full of potential.

Thirty years ago the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on educational opportunities that needlessly targeted undocumented students. But these students’ aspirations, including the aspirations' of the local students that Sen. Bailey isn't ready to acknowledge, end at high school graduation.

Let this be the year that we allow students to dream again.  Let this be the year that we let them write their own stories and imagine their own futures.

PubliCola LawNerd David A. Perez is an attorney in Seattle. He received his B.A. from Gonzaga University and his J.D. from the Yale Law School. Perez lobbied for another civil rights bill in the legislature this year that had big implications for the Latino commuity, the Voting Rights Act. It also stalled in the senate