WASHINGTON — Dayana Torres doesn’t like preaching to the choir.
The 19-year-old president of Dreamers of Virginia, Torres is one of the leaders of an effort to allow undocumented immigrants who live in Virginia to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public schools. She lobbies state legislators and organizes rallies where supporters march and picket for tuition equity bills. But what Torres really wants to do is win over skeptics.
“I don’t want to encounter people that know everything about immigration, and they’re all for it,” said Torres. “That’s great, but at the same time, if we want this to be passed, we shouldn’t just be focused on those people and maintaining our base and our support system. We should be focused on the people that don’t know much, educating them.”
Her parents brought Torres, now a computer science student at George Mason University, to the United States from Colombia when she was 9; they have lived in Virginia for 10 years. As an undocumented student, she is not eligible for in-state tuition. A Republican, she co-founded Dreamers of Virginia in 2013 to change that.
Across the U.S., undocumented students attending or trying to attend college have dubbed themselves “Dreamers,” a reference to the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – or DREAM Act — that failed to pass Congress in 2010. By granting conditional legal residency to undocumented immigrants younger than 29 who came to the United States as minors, it would have put eligible individuals who complete either college or military service on a path to permanent residency.
Virginia’s legislature in late January killed a bill allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students. The state has taken up another, more limited bill, making Virginia one of several states, including New Hampshire and Tennessee, considering similar laws this year.
While immigration reform advocacy groups say a comprehensive federal bill would be ideal, they know they can’t afford to wait on Congress. Instead, activists are honing in on a state-by-state battle to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.
And the stateside momentum is mounting: In 2013, four states passed legislation allowing undocumented students who live in the state to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria, such as having lived in the U.S. for a certain number of years and having graduated from high school in the state. Most recently, Gov. Chris Christie signed the New Jersey Dream Act into law in December 2013, bringing the total number of states with in-state tuition bills to 17.
Three of those states—California, Texas and New Mexico—offer undocumented students the ability to apply for state financial aid. Washington’s legislature recently passed a bill to extend state financial aid to undocumented students, and Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign it Wednesday.
The #DREAMact is ready for signing! I’ll sign it into law this Wednesday at 2pm #waleg pic.twitter.com/mhbg4QP9p9
— Governor Inslee (@GovInslee) February 24, 2014
At the same time, there’s been limited recent progress on immigration reform in Congress. The DREAM Act was originally introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2001, and was defeated because of several unsuccessful votes to end filibusters in 2010.
Activists and politicians had high hopes for immigration reform in 2014 after the Senate passed a comprehensive bill last year, but it was never brought to the House floor. In January, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., introduced a bill for states to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students, bringing issues found in the DREAM Act back into the federal spotlight.
The bill would give a state $750 million over 10 years in need-based financial aid for students if it allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition; the federal funds would come from increasing visa fees from foreign students. Based on LEAP, a defunct federal program that matched the funds states put into need-based financial aid programs, the bill started off as an amendment to the failed 2013 immigration reform bill.
A spokesman for Murray said introducing her bill as separate legislation instead of a part of the failed immigration reform bill makes the in-state tuition bill more likely to get bipartisan support.
“Republican-controlled state legislatures will be less inclined to be enthusiastic about a policy prescription … that’s coming from Democratic members of Congress,” said Murray’s spokesman. “So by structuring it as a states’ incentive program, I think that’s what’s really special.”
Another member of Murray’s staff added, “It’s kind of a win-win for students in their state, because when they expand access to these students, they get money to expand state financial aid for low-income students, and that’s all low-income students, not just undocumented.”
But opponents of in-state tuition legislation say such policies pose a burden on taxpayers who fund public schools in their states.
“It essentially provides benefits or rewards for immigration to the U.S. illegally and further invites illegal immigration in the future,” said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for anti-immigration amnesty group the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Optimism for federal immigration legislation this year was quickly deflated when Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in early February that his party does not trust President Barack Obama to fairly implement anything Congress passes.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in an interview that Republicans should not take on immigration reform in 2014, and suggested his party wait for a potential majority in the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections “to ensure responsible consideration of the issue.”
“If Congress is going to take up common-sense immigration reform,” said Cruz, “we should act to secure our borders, we should act to improve and streamline legal immigration.”
“It makes far more sense to do so next year, so that the House can negotiate with a Senate Republican majority, rather than with [Democratic New York senator] Chuck Schumer,” he said.
Amnesty is wrong in any circumstance. http://t.co/zASM85NgkS
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) January 31, 2014
In the absence of federal action, DREAM Act and tuition equity activists have taken to the states, where experts say the fight is more effective.
“You see the direct impact and you see the lives of these individuals,” said Deborah Santiago, COO at Excelencia in Education, a research and advocacy organization focused on helping Latinos succeed in education. “The stories are compelling at an individual level in ways that get muddied when you are looking at it at the national level.”
One factor in pushing states to adopt in-state tuition policies is Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, Santiago said. Issued in 2012, DACA allows undocumented immigrants who were younger than 16 when they arrived in the U.S. — and who were under the age of 31 in June 2012 — to apply for a two-year period of deportation immunity. Individuals with deferred action status can also apply for a work permit.
“The value added of DACA is to create opportunity for a subset of Dreamers … to be seen in a way that was constructive,” Santiago said. “They could work, they could enroll, they would come out of the shadows.”
Public colleges and universities began allowing DACA students to enroll, “and then states didn’t feel as stigmatized” in passing in-state tuition policies, she said.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits strengthened the economic incentive for states to pass their in-state tuition bills, said Lorella Praeli, advocacy and policy director at United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led advocacy group of which Dreamers of Virginia is an affiliate.
“These are young people you’ve invested in their education from K through 12,” Praeli said. “But now you have people who are talented and gifted who want to go off and continue their education, who can also work.”
Among the states, laws vary widely. Three states allow undocumented students access to both in-state tuition and state financial aid, with Washington state expected to follow. Meanwhile, Arizona, Indiana and Georgia explicitly ban in-state tuition for undocumented students and two other states—South Carolina and Alabama—ban undocumented students’ from enrolling in public colleges and universities. About half of the states have no legislation addressing the issue.
University policies are also factors in determining an undocumented student’s ability to attend college. Public universities in some states, such as Nevada, allow in-state tuition independent of state laws.
School policies work the other way around, too: In Georgia, state law does not explicitly ban enrollment for undocumented students, but the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents passed a policy in 2010 resulting in the de facto prohibition of undocumented students from many public universities.
At the same time, critics of the DREAM Act and in-state tuition bills in the states are actively pushing against the legislation. In states like Virginia where Torres is trying to get in-state tuition passed, organizations like FAIR are working to “curb this trend,” Williamson said.
Advocacy efforts must be tailored to the social and political climates of the different states, Praeli said. For example, United We Dream has an affiliate in Georgia developing a campaign to allow enrollment of undocumented students. Praeli added that in areas where undocumented students make up a smaller constituency, they start grassroots movements themselves rather than waiting for politicians or other officials to act.
One such organization is DreamActivist, which began online in 2009.
Mohammad Abdollahi, one of the organization’s co-founders, said he became involved in activism after finding out he would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend a public university in his home state, Michigan.
Abdollahi graduated from high school in 2003 after living in the U.S. since age 3. He attended community college for a while, but was not affected by his undocumented status until he tried to transfer to a four-year university.
“They told me, ‘You’re a perfect student for this university, you’re exactly what we’re looking for,’ they gave me my acceptance letter, and then five minutes later they came and took it away from me,” he said. “Part of the reason why I started organizing is because I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t do anything else so I might as well be productive in a different way.”
In addition to working with students to pass in-state tuition bills in various states, DreamActivist is working with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance on a campaign to bring deported families back to the United States.
Abdollahi said many groups work to establish connections with politicians, but he prefers that his group stay within the hands of the students.
“Our membership base and our people being impacted is what stops deportations and what gets legislation passed,” he said. “Not promises for politicians.”
Other activists believe in spreading the word as widely as possible.
“We’re not just targeting the undocumented community or Dreamers,” said Torres, the Dreamers of Virginia leader. “We can’t get this passed if we don’t have constituent support.”
Murray would be willing to hitch her proposal onto a comprehensive immigration bill or the Higher Education Act reauthorization that is due this year, staff said. While activists say the bill is unlikely to advance in Congress on its own, they hope the past year of action in many state legislatures will eventually lead to federal reform.
“We have more and more states coming out and supporting Dreamers,” Praeli said. “What we are able to do is to really continue to build a movement for us, to what we need to activate these people at the federal level.”
Until then, Torres said she wants to better inform skeptics about undocumented students and tuition policies.
“Most of us have been living here our whole lives,” she said. “It just says a lot that we’ve been living here, our parents have been paying taxes. We’ve been paying into the system, and we really haven’t seen much from it.”
And these students will contribute to their communities, she said.
“There are so many different things that we want to be,” Torres said. “Each one has a different story, but each one also has a different benefit that they’re already bringing.”