A NY State Dream Act is Possible. But Then What?


Take the bag, don´t forget the papers. Search for the money. Call the uncle. Grab the computer. Put everything together.

Run away.

Liz, 15, knows those steps by heart. Ten years ago, she crossed the U.S. border from Mexico with her parents Manuel and Elizabeth, whose last names will not be printed here to avoid the risk of deportation. When you live undocumented, said Manuel, you never know if one day you will end up being deported.

And if that happens, their daughter knows what to do: Take the bag, put everything together.

And run away.

Living unauthorized in the United States is not easy, said Manuel, 50, who works as a blacksmith for $2,500 a month. “Slowly we told Liz she was undocumented, I knew it was going to be hard.”

But last January, Manuel and Elizabeth learned that the New York State legislature had done something that might make their daughter´s life better, passing a state Dream Act and removing an obstacle between Liz and her dream of going to college. The Dream Act bill would allow undocumented students to access financial aid and scholarships in higher education. “This made me so happy, because now I can study what I really want,” said Liz.

The bill will become official once it is signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which is contingent on budget negotiations. By April 1st, State Senators and Assembly members much reach an agreement to keep the Dream Act in the final budget.

But even if it passes, Liz still would have a problem. Two, actually: Like thousands of undocumented children in the state, she does not have any protection from deportation. And meanwhile, she might not be able to get a work permit after college. “That worries me,” she said, from her house in Long Island. “We have this support now, but after college the doors will be closed for us.”

If the New York Dream Act goes into effect, around 146,000 people in the state who entered the U.S before the ages of sixteen will be affected by the policy, according to the New York State Youth Leadership Council and NYU Law School´s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. But a percentage of them will still face the same challenges as Liz. In New York, only around 42,000 people are protected under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  This program, created under President Obama to protect immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were children, was ended by President Trump in 2017.

Since President Trump halted DACA, several court injunctions have kept the program open, but only for renewals, not new applicants. Thus the number of protected dreamers is slowly going down nationwide, dropping from 704,000 in July 2018 to 687,000 as of December 31, 2018, according to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

While new applications for DACA are frozen, around 4,500 undocumented students graduate from New York high schools every year.

In simple words: Without new protections, New York State might end up funding college for undocumented students who will not be allowed to work in the country that educated them. And who could be deported.

A contradiction, according to Liz.

“I hope this can change,” she said, “and people open their eyes to see that it, if we are qualified for a same job, it does not matter where I was born.” 

New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera argues that the problem has to be solved at the federal level. “We know that there are millions across the state and country that are not harming anyone and are being victimized because they weren’t born here,” he said to NY City Lens. The New York Dream Act, he continued, “is a no-brainer, but we certainly are concerned about their ongoing issues.” Rivera is the primary sponsor of the “New York is Home Act,” a bill introduced in 2014 that aims to establish New York state citizenship, regardless of immigration status,  providing certain rights and benefits, such as drivers licenses, public health benefits, and the ability to vote in local elections. Rivera is set to reactivate and update the proposal in the New York State Senate.

But more protection for undocumented students has been fiercely resisted by some organizations that support President Trump´s immigration policy. “Why is the state of New York—with myriad other problems confronting it—appropriating scarce funds to create a benefit for individuals who aren’t lawfully present in the U.S.?” asked Matt O´Brien, research director from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that seeks to reduce overall immigration.

Liz may not be American, but she feels that way. Three days a week, she participates in the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program, which has a mission to instill in students the value of citizenship and service to the United States.  She arrived to the U.S. in 2008, one year late to apply for DACA.

But she hopes that, in the future, a new protection will be created for kids like her. On Saturdays, she studies forensic science and computer coding in Adelphi University and, on weekdays, she participates in her school theater workshops. Her dream is to graduate from college and then work in a big Hollywood movie.

For now, though, she must be wary. “I would certainly never discourage a DACA student from maximizing their opportunity to go to school,” said New York State Senator Liz Krueger. But if someone doesn’t have a DACA status, “you face added risks whenever you fill out paperwork in a government location—regardless of whether you’re 18 and trying to go to college or 62 and trying to draw down some other benefit.” The dilemma for New York State is that the legislature doesn’t control immigration law, said Krueger, and therefore can´t control what ICE might or might not do with unauthorized immigrants.

“We are doing what we can on a state level to ensure higher education is affordable for undocumented students, and the federal government must do their part to protect and expand DACA,” New York State Senator Jessica Ramos told NY City Lens. Fixing the works permits issue and the ways immigrants can access jobs through a legal platform has to be part of a new discussion, says Carlos Menchaca, chairman of the City Council´s Immigration Committee.

On the federal level, the House of Representatives, apparently, has decided to boost the discussion about permanently protecting immigrants who were brought illegally into the U.S when they were children. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats to get ready to pass the federal Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers. According to Roll Call, the House Democrats will reintroduce the bill on March 12th, including protections for Temporary Protected Status.

After that, however, it would have to pass the GOP- dominated Senate, where its chances will be slim to none.