The politics of the Dream Act

Trying to make sense of the Dream Act and Gov. Pawlenty’s veto threat.

Jason Stahl

This past week, the Minnesota House of Representatives joined the Minnesota Senate in passing a higher education funding bill which included a Dream Act provision.

As reported in The Minnesota Daily last month, the provision “would allow for undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates and receive financial aid and merit-based scholarships if they meet certain requirements.”

To be eligible, “A student must attend a Minnesota high school for at least three years, be accepted to a public college or university, graduate from a state high school or receive an equivalent certificate and, if required, sign an affidavit stating they are attempting to obtain U.S. citizenship.”

Currently, noncitizens who meet these requirements still have to pay nonresident tuition – more than $11,000 a year.

The act is a good provision which the Democratic House and Senate should be commended for passing.

Hopefully, the conference committee, which meets this week to reconcile the two higher education funding bills, will keep the Dream Act language in the final version that goes on to the governor’s desk.

However, advocates of higher education affordability must also admit that the act is only a small first step toward affordability in higher education and equal access for all. In the same higher education bills which contain the Dream Act provisions, in-state tuition is being raised once again.

This, of course, is already on top of the 111-percent increase students have seen in the last 10 years.

Thus, even if the Dream Act passes, most children of undocumented immigrants still won’t be able to afford the cost of higher education in this state. This is why, even in the 10 states which have adopted Dream Act provisions, too few students are able to take advantage of the option.

In Minnesota, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, estimates that only 500 students will take advantage of the provision.

Despite the limited nature of the act, anti-immigrant Republicans in the legislature are acting as if it is the end of the world.

And, as is so often the case, they are misrepresenting the act and fear-mongering in order to make their case. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, argues that “We should not be paying for those who are not here legally.”

This statement ignores that these students still have to pay in-state tuition themselves. Moreover, given that these students would not have attended Minnesota colleges before the act, the state isn’t actually losing any money.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, ups the ante even further, arguing that his opposition to the act “goes to the security of all 50 states.”

How this is the case is entirely unclear, but such statements are good for inflaming the electorate.

Severson also argues that there is a “military option” in place whereby undocumented immigrants can serve in the military in exchange for citizenship.

Setting aside the merits of sending people off into the Iraq quagmire in exchange for citizenship, the statement by Severson is actually incorrect. There is currently no such “military option” in place.

A federal version of the Dream Act currently working through Congress has such an option, but as of right now, military recruiters are turning away undocumented immigrants despite the need for soldiers.

But of course no one has gone further to show his opposition to the Dream Act than Gov. Pawlenty, who has threatened to veto the entire education bill because of it.

Again, given the limited nature of the act, such a position does not make sense. If, however, you view Pawlenty’s veto threat through the lens of his vice-presidential ambitions, it makes perfect sense.

Pawlenty clearly wants to be John McCain’s running mate should he win the Republican nomination, and McCain has not made it a secret that Pawlenty is one of his top choices for the position.

McCain, however, is distrusted by some grassroots voters in the Republican Party who want their candidates to be fully anti-immigrant. McCain’s support for a guest worker program makes him suspect among this group.

So, Pawlenty’s anti-immigrant position on the Dream Act helps McCain shore up these voters.

Given that McCain’s tenuous grip on reality is causing his campaign to implode, maybe Pawlenty will rethink his position and not veto the legislation, which includes the Dream Act.

Maybe I’m being naïve thinking he might reconsider, but one can dream, right?

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]