"DREAMers" could apply for financial aid under US Senate reform

The diligent Congressional effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform over the last month has progressed to the U.S. Senate floor — and a provision in the bill could have major implications for higher education.

Senate Bill 744 — touted as an effort to provide a path to U.S. citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants — was approved last week by the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee.

One of several amendments added to the legislation would allow undocumented high school graduates who came to the country as children to be eligible for federal financial aid and work-study.

“This bill is a big deal for us,” said Viridiana Martinez, an organizer for the N.C. DREAM Team, an advocacy group for undocumented minors.

Immigrant rights advocates say having access to federal aid will allow thousands of undocumented students to attend college who could not afford to pay out of pocket.

Current UNC-system policy says that illegal immigrants may not receive state or federal aid in the form of a grant or loan, and they are considered out-of-state students for tuition purposes.

“As an undocumented immigrant myself, I didn’t have any idea what resources there were out there to help me go to school in small-town Wake County, North Carolina,” Martinez said.

The slow but steady progress of national immigrant reform echoes a push earlier this year in North Carolina and other states to make some undocumented immigrants eligible for state driver’s licenses.

North Carolina ranks eighth nationally by population of undocumented aliens, with 400,000 living in the state as of January 2011 — including 1,500 who graduate from state high schools every year.

Martinez said achieving small rights such as student loans and driver’s licenses are big steps on immigrants’ road to national acceptance.

“We’re not all gang bangers driving around looking for trouble, as some people claim,” she said.

“We’re mainly a lot of youth with dreams and mothers who just want to drive their kids to school without the risk of being pulled over and deported when it’s discovered they don’t have a license.”

Maudia Melendez, a volunteer for Jesus Ministry of Charlotte, said North Carolina’s new license policy is helping undocumented immigrants fit in with the state’s workforce — although immigrants in other states aren’t as lucky.

Not having a valid driver’s license is the most common reason illegal immigrants are deported, Melendez said.

“It looks like (the Senate) bill might solve this problem and help a lot of people get citizenship,” she said.

But Ron Woodward, director of N.C. Listen, a conservative think tank in Cary, said past efforts to enact federal immigration reform have distracted from more important issues harming U.S. citizens.

“What worries me is that no one is asking what the consequences are for American workers,” he said. “A lot of working Americans can’t find the money to go to college, and giving student loans to illegal immigrants will only lessen the amount we can give to American citizens.”

He said he is concerned that many tenants and restrictions in the bill, including those related to higher education, will not be enforced.

Debate of the immigration reform bill is scheduled to begin on the Senate floor next month, and legislators say many challenges await the bill as it moves through Congress.

Martinez said it will be much longer than a month before she declares victory for the N.C. DREAM Team’s efforts.

“Even if the bill does get signed into law,” she said, “we still have a long way to go until illegal immigrants are easily accepted as full citizens.”

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