To Dream Again the American Dream—
The Case of Undocumented Students of Hawaii
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
There is a proposed legislation in the House of Representatives that has gained some discussion and controversy during the last few days: HB 1457, HD 1.
At a March 30 Senate confirmation hearing for nominees to the board of regents of the University of Hawaii, the issue came up time and again, putting into the limelight the plight of college-age and college-bound indocumentados—the undocumented young people—of Hawaii.
Described as a proposed law that “extends eligibility for state financial aid and resident tuition to students of the University of Hawaii without lawful immigration status who meet certain specified criteria,” HB 1457 looks straight into the very heart of access to education and boldly stipulates what needs to be done with the blessings of the law and the ascendant fairness of our moral action to share the magnanimity of our heart with those who have less in our Hawaii collective life.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act, a federal law, grants individual states the right to enact laws that benefit immigrant people who do not have lawful immigrant status so they can have access to public resources.
These public resources include education, state scholarships, and funding for college-related training.
The end-point, as in the federal DREAM Act—Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors—is to make education available to all.
The federal proposal introduced in the United States Senate on August 2001 by Senators Dick Durbin and Orrin Hatch, and reintroduced on May 11, 2011, would pave the way for some of the qualified young people to have become conditional permanent residents, and then, after fulfilling other requirements of the law, would be given temporary permanent residency, prior to being given a permanent residency after fulfilling certain conditions.
Permanent residency is one of the requirements for acquiring citizenship.
The Hawaii version of the DREAM Act—now popularly known as Hawaii DREAM Act-spins off from the vision of the federal legislative proposal and in its language, invests on the need to address with urgency the need for an educated population in the state.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, in its statement of support, speaks of the Hawaii DREAM Act as a legislative proposal that will “allow certain qualified young people who possess limitless potential to contribute to our society and provide them with a path to citizenship after higher education.”
The ACLU letter of support crafted by Lurie A. Temple, a staff attorney of the non-profit organization that has fought for the civil rights of the people of the state for the last 40 years, argues that the proposed law is “consistent with American values” as it aims to assure the protection of the “rights of vulnerable immigrant communities” and the giving to the young people “access to higher education.”
Citing a 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, ACLU speaks of the potential benefits of having an educated population especially so when such members of the population become citizens themselves.
The Supreme Court has expressed a perspective to rethinking about this case of the indocumentados, says ACLU, and quotes the decision, thus: “the illegal alien of today may well be the legal alien of tomorrow…[w]ithout education, the undocumented children, [a]lready disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability, and undeniable racial prejudices,…will become permanently locked into the lowest socio-economic class.”
It is this underclass, currently invisible, and rendered so by the legal institution, that the Hawaii DREAM Act seeks to make visible, and pave a road for their education and training so that in the end they become productive residents of the state.
Catherine Betts, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, supports the proposed legislative measure on behalf of the commission.
Among others objectives, HB 1457, enables students to go to college within the University of Hawaii system, apply for scholarships, apply for financial aid, and pay tuition based on their being regarded as residents of the state.
Betts writes that “immigrant students who are high achieving and talented should not be forced to bear an unequal burden simply because they want to obtain a college education. These students often already face various problems, including financial barriers to higher education, fear of deportation and inability to secure gainful employment—all because of their legal status. Providing eligibility to secure state financial aid or tuition waivers is an investment in our state’s future.”
Betts recalls of her “humbling opportunity to meet with undocumented students from California” that shared with her of their stories of constant fear of police officers, their fear of being deported, and their fear of going back to an unknown land only their parents know. The same students spoke of their dreams of obtaining a college degree, a dream that has but become less and less within their reach because of legal constraints.
In Hawaii, we have a share of these indocumentados, and the sooner we give them access to resources that will turn them into educated residents, the better will be for the state’s economic life.
While the estimate of those who will benefit from this measure vary, with some estimates approximating in the hundreds while others a few thousand students, the socio-economic benefits of giving education access to these young people will far outweigh the initial financial cost the state will shoulder.
Amy Agbayani, co-chair of the Hawaii Friends of Civil Rights, argues for the need to give access to immigrants as potential productive residents and citizens. A naturalized citizen herself, she speaks of the urgency of looking into the plight of college-bound students with unlawful immigrant status, and provide for a way to retain them in college, and equip them with life-long learning and professional skills.
The alliances of civic and cultural organizations of Oahu and of the state, through their respective presidents, have given full support for the measure. Maria Etrata, president of Oahu Filipino Community Council, speaks of “disenfranchised” young people, and the need to give them hope, and make them part of the Hawaii community.
Lynne Gutierrez, president of the United Filipino Council of Hawaii and a recently retired public school teacher, speaks of HB 1457 as a humanitarian gesture that “would open the doors to an invisible but vital segment of Hawaii’s youth.” She believes that this measure would help strengthen Hawaii society and help propel its economy.
The idea that education is an investment is echoed in the support written by Agnes Malate of the Filipinos for Affirmative Action.
Malate argues that if we want to be true to our claim of this century as “American Century,” we must look at education as an investment that benefits all. We want to be leaders in industry, the arts, technology, the sciences, research, and innovation, she continues, we weed to invest in education and this investment in education must be made available for all.
This is the same reasoning that Beatriz Ramos-Razon, president and founder of Nursing Advocates and Mentors Inc., follows in giving her support for HB 1457.
NAMI is a group of health care professionals and volunteers advocating for public health education, access to resources in health care, and re-training of health care professionals educated outside the United States. She writes: “Our state government and economy have the most to gain with highly educated, highly skilled, and highly motivated students who can help navigate Hawaii toward a resilient recovery.”
In her support for the measure, Charlene Cuaresma, past president of the Filipino Coalition for Solidarity, speaks of social disparity issues besetting the immigrant population of Hawaii. If these disparities exist among the lawful residents, we cannot imagine what kind of disparities exist among those without lawful immigrant status, the same people who live in the shadows, who could not afford to come out into the open, and thus relegated to the margins of Hawaii society, unable to get the benefits of lawful residents, and pushed each day from public life until they are totally dismissed, or totally forgotten.
Cuaresma speaks of the need to “remove barriers that prohibit enrollment in schools within the University of Hawaii system for undocumented non-citizen Hawaii students.”
All told, the measure remains part of the public conversation.
It has gained opposition, with the argument that we cannot give benefits to illegal immigrants.
The bigger rebuttal to the opposition is that at one point, many of the people of the United States—and thus of Hawaii as well—have been immigrants themselves.
The debate is healthy, and we need this conversation to understand the bigger context of this measure.
At day-end, we cannot afford to have uneducated residents of Hawaii, and uneducated citizens.
At day-end, we cannot afford to waste the talents, abilities, and gifts of our undocumented young people.
Somewhere, we need to strike the balance between the requisites of our existing laws and the requisites of social justice.