Illinois Passes Bill For Undocumented Youth, Makes An Even Dozen State-Level DREAM Acts

First posted at Campus Progress.

Undocumented youth in Illinois received some good news yesterday as Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the Illinois DREAM Act into law, making the state the 12th to pass legislation that will help young people without papers pay for college.

The bill provides a private scholarship fund for undocumented young people who attended high school for at least three years in Illinois, have at least one immigrant parent, and want to attend private or public universities in the state.

In an interview yesterday, Quinn said, “Illinois has to be a welcoming society here in the 21st century [for] everybody with nobody left out, and that’s really what this bill stands for.”

One of the biggest barriers to undocumented youths’ college attendance (at least, in states that haven’t banned their attendance) is the prohibitively expensive price of higher education, as most are ineligible for financial aid to help pay their way through college. The Illinois DREAM Act, like other similar bills, attempts to alleviate that burden through scholarships that don’t cost the state government any money. The issue of providing full citizenship for those youth, however, remains unresolved.

The ceremony yesterday was attended by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who indicated on the campaign trail that he would support such a bill. In a statement, the mayor plugged his new Office of New Americans, which will help immigrants to Chicago open new businesses. Emanuel has taken heat from immigrants rights groups in the past for his stances on immigration reform, although he received some praise for opening the new office.

The Illinois DREAM Act and the new Chicago office supporting new immigrant business owners are the latest policies in a state that has become synonymous with support for immigrants—at least in comparison to the many other states who continue to pass punitive anti-immigrant laws. In May, Quinn indicated his intention to pull the state out of the controversial immigrant enforcement program Secure Communities.

That support hasn’t gone unnoticed by those opposed to expanding immigrants rights: in an interview with the Chicago Tribune after Quinn tried to pull out of Secure Communities, Roy Beck, executive director of the anti-immigrant organization NumbersUSA, stated, “Illinois is without competition the most pro-illegal immigration state in the country.”

While state-level initiatives like the Illinois DREAM Act are certainly positive developments for undocumented young people, DREAMers are still hurting without federal-level immigration reform. A new study in the academic journal American Sociological Review shows that while many undocumented young people do pursue higher education, few receive the income boost that a college degree gives to native-born citizens, as decent-paying job prospects post-graduation are slim for those without papers.

But most immigrant rights advocates agree that such state-level initiatives are all that can be accomplished right now. As Aswini Anburajan pointed out in March, the shifting political winds that resulted in big Republican gains in Congress in 2010 forced the immigrant rights movement to pursue a state-by-state strategy much like the movement for gay marriage. Laws like the Illinois DREAM Act will continue to be pushed in states around the country until the political will exists to pass national immigration reform that can make all DREAMers fully-recognized citizens.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.

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