November 6th was a good day for human rights, at least in Maryland. Not only did the state’s voters support same-sex marriage, they also voted in favor of expanding access to higher education for all of Maryland’s students, regardless of their immigration status.
While the Maryland ballot initiative on education is great for young migrants in that state, it highlights the fact that federal action is sorely needed to protect the human rights and dignity of migrants everywhere.
There is some good news. In June this year, President Obama signed an executive order preventing the Department of Homeland Security from deporting undocumented immigrants under 30 who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, and who fulfill a number of other criteria regarding their moral standing and education.
However, while this change rightly was hailed as a positive development for hundreds of thousands of young people, it does not overcome the need for legislative action—President Obama himself called it a “stop-gap” measure. In fact, it is now more than decade since a bipartisan initiative proposing similar benefits first was introduced in the Senate under the title “Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.”
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The idea behind the original bill—and the various versions of it introduced over the years—was to open the possibility for higher education and ultimately citizenship for noncitizen children of good moral character, regardless of their immigration status.
And the idea is solid. The individuals potentially covered by these bills are already a positive part of their communities, and many know no other home than the United States. They are, for all intents and purposes, Americans in everything but paperwork. Moreover, maintaining the documentary limbo many of them are in does nothing but make it more difficult for them to pay tax, improve their education, or otherwise contribute constructively to society. In other words: refusing to regularize the status of undocumented children risks turning them into the pariahs they never were.
However, since the first DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, and despite the passage of a version of the bill in the House of Representatives in 2010, no final legislation has been approved by both houses. Arguments that the bill would foster illegal immigration or potentially shield gang members do not bear out in reality. For starters, the bill explicitly seeks to exclude those with a criminal background and applies equally to documented and undocumented aliens. Also, from a pragmatic perspective, most people migrate because they can’t provide for their families at home, not because they think they can “pull one over” on their host country. The lack of DREAM Act-like legislation does not make foreign-born children magically disappear or “self-deport.” Rather, it prevents them from fulfilling their potential as participants in society, thus becoming more of a burden than they otherwise would have been: a lose-lose situation if ever there was one.
But even more importantly, education is a human right. Numerous international human rights bodies have repeatedly clarified that states must protect the human rights of those living in their territory, regardless of their legal status. Certainly, states can and must independently determine their immigration and access policies, but they cannot decide whether any one individual has rights: we all do.
Up until this week, 11 states had already adopted their own versions of the DREAM Act, including California, Texas, and New York, all states with large and rapidly growing foreign-born populations. It is telling that states with large immigrant populations know that providing immigrant children with access to higher education only can be beneficial to everyone.
The ballot initiative approved in Maryland this week sends a powerful message to Congress that states are willing to provide, piecemeal, what the federal government should be providing, wholesale. It also underlines the uneven nature of legal protections for immigrants until federal law is passed, especially because immigration generally remains under federal purview. Hopefully, passing a federal DREAM Act is a priority item on the agenda of the new Congress.