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"I can't move forward and I can't go back to school quite yet," Erika says. "I feel like I'm in total limbo because I'm not a citizen."
The origin of the federal DREAM Act can, in a way, be traced back to Texas.
In 1975, the Texas state legislature passed a law prohibiting school districts from using state money to educate students who had not entered the United States legally. It also authorized the school districts to deny enrollment to undocumented children.
In 1982, in the case of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Texas statute violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and consequently, that states may not deny undocumented children a free elementary and secondary education. The court's decision, however, did not address college and higher education, leaving that matter in the states' hands.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature addressed the issue of higher education and in a departure from the discriminatory stance of the '70s, led the nation by becoming the first state to allow undocumented Texas high school graduates to pay in-state tuition rates.
According to the current law, anyone who has lived in Texas for three years prior to graduating from a state high school or earning a GED, has lived in-state for a year before enrolling in college, and signs an affidavit stating that he will apply for permanent residency as soon as he is eligible, qualifies for in-state tuition.
Eight other states have enacted similar laws.
The problem, however, was that while the new rule began enabling far more undocumented immigrants to get a higher level of education, without a valid social security number they could not lawfully work in this country and put their education to use.
Enter the DREAM Act.
Since 2001, several versions of the bill have been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. So far, none have passed.
The latest version, sponsored by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, in 2007, contained several requirements for immigrants to be eligible for conditional six-year residency status. The person has to have:
— entered the United States before age 16,
— been admitted by a two-year or four-year college after earning a high school degree or equivalency diploma,
— continuously lived in the United States for at least five years,
— demonstrated "good moral character," in essence meaning no criminal record, and
— not reached the age of 30 at the time the Act is passed.
The person could then earn permanent residency during the conditional six-year period by either serving two years in the military or completing at least two years of college.
In October 2007, the bill made it to the Senate floor, and though it received a majority of votes, 52 to 44, the bill fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to survive a filibuster.
In Texas, Republican Senator John Cornyn voted against the DREAM Act, while fellow Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was instrumental in trying to re-tailor the bill so that it could garner more right-wing support, cast her vote in favor.
"There are young people who have been brought to this country as minors, not of their own doing, who have gone to American high schools, graduated, and who want to go to American colleges," Hutchison said on the Senate floor in 2007. "They are in a limbo situation. I believe we should deal with this issue. We should do it in a way that helps assimilate these young people with a college education into our country. They have lived here most of their lives. If we sent them home, they wouldn't know what home is."
Neither Hutchison nor Cornyn responded to the Houston Press's repeated requests for comment.
It is difficult to know precisely how many people the DREAM Act would affect if enacted. Public schools do not ask students about their residency status because they have to provide an education to illegal immigrants, and public universities choose not to ask.
"If they meet the criteria for entrance," says Dr. Martyn Gunn, dean of undergraduate programs at Texas A&M, "we simply accept them, no questions asked. We don't ask students' residency status, and we do not use a social security card number."
Gunn says that last year the university calculated that only 160 students out of an enrollment of around 47,000 qualified under the state law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
"It's certainly not a large number," says Gunn.
According to a report published by the Office of the Texas Comptroller, about 135,000 undocumented students were in the state's public schools during the 2004-2005 school year. This accounted for about 3 percent of the total public school enrollment.
In 2006, the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., reported that 360,000 unauthorized high school graduates ages 18 to 24 would become immediately eligible for conditional legal status should the DREAM Act become law. Only 50,000 of that 360,000 were enrolled in universities across the country and would likely be eligible for receiving permanent residency status.
According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., there are about 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.