The Dream Act: Allowing Immigrant Students to be Workforce Ready
Before joining Ed Trust-New York, I worked as an advocate/attorney for immigrant families. One of my first clients was Gloria,* a New York City high school student who had just enrolled in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program that would involve one semester of coursework and one semester interning at a local business. Gloria was really excited to enroll in the program, since it would give her the opportunity to explore a potential career of interest outside of a traditional classroom setting.
Toward the end of Gloria’s first semester in the program, she called me, distraught because she would not be able to start the internship the following semester. When I called the counselor in charge of the program, I was told that because it was a paid internship, students had to demonstrate their eligibility to work in the United States. That’s when I realized that Gloria was likely undocumented.
Gloria had immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Mexico when she was only 8 or 9 years old. However, as an education advocate, I had never asked about her immigration status, since all students have a right to a public education, irrespective of their immigration status.
Luckily, Gloria had just applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that President Obama had introduced only a few months earlier in 2012. As soon as Gloria’s work permit arrived, the school arranged for her to start an internship immediately. Gloria loved her internship. She felt good about what she was doing and, of course, liked earning a paycheck! It was also the first time she had an opportunity to experience hands-on learning, which she really appreciated.
When we think about equitable course access, undocumented students, by virtue of their status, cannot benefit from many of the work-based learning experiences that are a key component of the rigorous CTE programs that have gained popularity in recent years.
DACA addressed this issue for Gloria, but in the absence of DACA or a more permanent immigration solution like the Dream Act, hundreds of thousands of undocumented students like Gloria will remain at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing programs that set students up to be college and career ready.
DACA and other forms of immigration relief have also played a critical role in helping school-aged youth remain engaged in school. Without a path to lawful immigration status, staying in school and working toward a high school diploma may become a lower priority for some immigrant youth, especially as they and their families fear potential deportation from the country they call home. Whether it be access to work-based learning experiences like Gloria’s or taking courses that will help them become college-ready, immigrant youth know that if they have lawful immigration status they will have many more opportunities waiting for them.
As P-12 education advocates, we need immigration reform that will protect young people and their families, and provide them with the best opportunities for a bright future. That’s why we need to urge Congress to pass a clean Dream Act.