A comprehensive immigration reform bill—the first since 1986—passed the Senate in June. The most widely discussed aspect of this measure was that it would provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million individuals living and often working in the United States illegally. But the issue has run aground in the House of Representatives, where its future remains uncertain. Among its many provisions, three are of great importance to colleges and universities.
The DREAM Act
What difference does it make to higher education whether immigration reform is enacted? Every year, thousands of undocumented students graduate from American high schools. These students, who were born in foreign countries and brought here as children, were largely raised in this country and consider themselves Americans. But under current federal law, they are usually ineligible for in-state tuition, and under the Higher Education Act, they are excluded from all federal financial aid programs. Even if the students persevere and complete their postsecondary education, they are ineligible to work because they lack the all-important “green card,” which provides authorization to live and work permanently in the United States.
Such students’ heart-rending stories inspired the introduction of the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which the American Council on Education (ACE) has strongly supported since it was first introduced in 2001. This proposal would provide such students an expedited path to citizenship if they accomplish academic goals and/or serve in our military. The more recent Senate reform bill would allow (but not require) states to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, and would provide these students with access to federal student loans and the work-study program (but not Pell Grants). It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million students would be eligible for the benefits provided by the DREAM Act, which has been reintroduced several times, but never passed.
STEM Graduates and Visa Reform
ACE has long advocated for changes to our visa system to permit talented international students to remain in the United States following the completion of their studies here—particularly those with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees. The Senate bill would streamline the green card process for STEM graduates, as well as those with a doctorate in any academic discipline. If these changes are approved, these graduates would essentially have a green card stapled to their diploma. In addition, the bill would exempt international advanced-STEM-degree graduates from the employment-based green card limit, and would take other steps to help eliminate existing backlogs for certain categories of green card applicants. In an era when both business leaders and policymakers at all levels of government are crying out for more graduates with advanced degrees, enactment of this provision makes tremendous sense.
The Senate bill also includes reforms of the non-immigrant visa process, particularly the H-1B visa, which would enhance our nation’s recruitment and retention of highly skilled international students and employees. It would permit H-1B employees to revalidate their visas here, rather than requiring them to return to their home countries just to reapply for the same visa. It also addresses the so-called “dual intent” issue, allowing those on certain non-immigrant visas to simultaneously pursue permanent resident status, and eliminating the need for international students to prove their intention to leave the country upon completion of their studies.
Not surprisingly, given our highly partisan world, the House has charted a course very different from the Democratic-controlled Senate. While a bipartisan group of representatives worked for a time to develop an immigration package, the real action has been in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has given comprehensive immigration reform the cold shoulder. Instead, his committee has produced bills on discrete subtopics, including border enforcement, employment screening, short-term agricultural laborers, and highly skilled workers.
Notably, the committee has not considered any legislation dealing with undocumented immigrants, which reflects the lack of consensus on the issue among House Republicans. Indeed, while House Republicans could likely come together quickly on a broad range of immigration issues, including many that the higher education community cares about, the question of what to do with the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants remains particularly divisive and vexing. The spectrum of opinion among House Republicans runs from those who could probably live with a path to citizenship after tougher border security standards are implemented to those who are adamantly unwilling to accept legalization for any undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Faced with this sharp divide, Speaker Boehner has been noticeably vague about immigration reform, except to say that, at least for now, the Senate bill is “dead on arrival,” and that he will only bring forward an immigration reform package that a majority of House Republicans can support.
Politics is nothing if not fluid, and the political environment might shift somewhat over the coming months. But if the House majority position on immigration reform stays where it is, it’s likely that the Senate bill will sink, and with it the hopes of many lower-income undocumented students trying to earn a college degree.