Court Upholds In-State Tuition for 'DREAM' Students

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The California Supreme Court has upheld the legality of AB 540, a bill the state Legislature passed in 2001 that allows undocumented students who attend California high schools for at least three years and graduate in good standing to attend the state's public institutions and pay tuition at the in-state rate.

California is one of 10 states that have such a law, and the Nov. 15 decision is thought to hold ramifications for challenges that might arise in other states. It provides a natural extension of the constitutional requirement that states provide free K-12 education to illegal immigrants.

Yet keeping college affordable for all state residents does not address the other barriers students confront, notes Alisa Messer, president of AFT 2121, the San Francisco Community College District Federation of Teachers. "I have several AB 540 students every semester," she says. "Many faculty don't realize when we're working with undocumented students how many obstacles they have to overcome just to make it to class. Beyond financial considerations, they are not allowed to hold a job, get a Social Security number or a get driver's license. The difficulties they face are huge."

So, too, are the dangers. This became apparent to the City College of San Francisco community in October, when they learned that a student, Steve Li, who had not been aware of his illegal status, had been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and sent to Arizona for imminent deportation. AFT 2121 member Sang Chi, who had been his teacher in the spring of 2009, and friends alerted teachers and fellow students to Li's plight, as well as contacting other organizations and immigrant rights activists. In just a few weeks, the supporters organized rallies; candlelight vigils; Facebook and online petition drives; phone calls to local, state and national elected officials; and a letter-writing campaign to ICE director John Morton.

Local AFT 2121 passed a resolution of support on Nov. 12. Other resolutions calling for a halt to Li's deportation have come from the CCSF Board of Trustees, the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. When word came that Li was to be sent to Peru within days, interventions came from Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Li's legal request for deferred action on his deportation was denied; however, for now, ICE has not followed through on the Nov. 12 deportation. (UPDATE: After Sen. Feinstein introduced a private immigration bill to delay Li’s deportation for 75 days, he was released on Nov. 20 and returned to San Francisco the next day. His future is uncertain however, until Congress passes the DREAM Act.)

More broadly, the AFT, state affiliates and locals are on record in support of the federal DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which has been introduced in each session of Congress since 2001. While it has passed in the House in this current session, it has failed one vote in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reintroduced it on Nov. 17. The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship through college or the military for those undocumented young adults brought to the United States by their parents as children. (See the November/December 2010 AFT On Campus for more information.)

"The only way to ensure that Steve and students like him aren't targeted and deported," says Chi, "is to pass the DREAM Act." You can sign a petition on Li's behalf online. Contact your elected representatives in Congress and ask them pass the DREAM Act in the next few weeks. [Barbara McKenna]

November 19, 2010