Niagara Gazette

February 20, 2013

GUEST VIEW: New York's Dream Act helps all our kids

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Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In Mark Scheer’s Jan. 28 City Desk column on the Dream Act, Scheer compares denying undocumented students a college education to cable companies denying current customers the sexy promotional deals offered to new subscribers. His view is that the New York state Dream Act rewards undocumented college-bound students — DREAMers — while unfairly punishing “our kids,” as if the societal impact of providing young people with a college education is somehow comparable to three months of free HBO.

This kind of divisive “us vs. them” rhetoric has been used throughout our nation’s history to resist recognizing the dignity of others, and we have always come to regret it. Let me be clear — they are all “our kids.” I could have easily been one of those kids.

Forty years ago, my parents came to the United Sates as political refugees from Uganda, under the threat of violence from Idi Amin. America was the one nation that welcomed us, and fortunately for me, granted my parents the legal status that enabled me to receive the financial aid I needed to go to college, and then to law school.

Today, parents like mine come to this country from all over the world for the exact same reasons they always have: freedom from oppression, the opportunity to work hard and prosper, and the potential to build a better life for their children.

Here in New York state, we have the second largest population of immigrants in the entire country. Immigrants comprise over 25 percent of the workforce, and they account for $200 billion in work output annually. They pay taxes, contribute to our communities and help grow our economy. Yet, their children are currently being denied the same opportunities that you and I had to pursue higher education and help move New York state forward.

Every year, it’s estimated that 3,627 undocumented students graduate from high school in New York. These are students brought to this country through no act of their own and raised in diverse and vibrant neighborhoods across the state. Our DREAMers learn Algebra and Chemistry alongside students of every status, every race and every religion. And, it should be noted, their parents pay taxes while being ineligible for the bulk of public services their tax dollars support.

When these students cross the stage on graduation day, they are seeking nothing more than the same opportunity as their classmates to go to college, realize their potential, and contribute to our economy.

No sweet deals, no gimmicks. Just the same access to the American Dream as every other New Yorker.

With 77 percent of Americans supporting comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship and a bipartisan group of senators, including our own Chuck Schumer joining the president’s charge to pass it, New York must start investing in the future of our economy now. We cannot afford to wait. I want, and our state needs, a DREAMer to build the next Google in New York, not on the West Coast. We should all want a DREAMer to design and build the next generation of wind farms for New York, not in the Midwest.

Extending New York’s Tuition Assistance Program to undocumented students would increase the overall cost of the program by an amount equal to roughly 0.012 percent of the state budget. This increase means that no students are losing out — rather more students are gaining — and this figure pales in comparison to the opportunity cost we would face if instead, we choose to leave bright, motivated students behind.

In the next 5 years, 63 percent of all jobs in New York will require post-secondary education. Hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs will be created in STEM fields—science, technology, math and engineering—and we have the potential to lead in growth sectors like Bioinformatics thanks to successful programs at the State University at Buffalo and other public schools.

For New York to lead the country and the world in innovation, we need to tap the brainpower of all our kids, regardless of their status.

There is only one America and one New York. Now is the time for all of us, immigrants new and old, documented and undocumented, to band together and pass the Dream Act — for all our kids.

As President Barack Obama said in his inauguration address: "The most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Reshma Saujani is a former deputy public advocate of New York City