Elsa Nunez: 'Dreamers' are at heart of the American Dream

Science Building at Eastern Connecticut State University, in Willimantic.

Science Building at Eastern Connecticut State University, in Willimantic.

WILLIMANTIC, Conn.

The recent controversy surrounding a proposed ban on immigration from seven Middle East countries recalls similar times in our history. More than 130 years ago, Chinese immigration was restricted. In 1924, Japanese immigrants were effectively barred from entering the U.S., and Mexicans living here during the Depression were the subject of repatriation, even those who were U.S. citizens. Other restrictions on immigration have marked our history, based on the domestic and global politics of the times.

The latest policy pronouncements reaffirm the need for comprehensive immigration reform in this country. It is time for Congress to decide how to balance securing our borders with the need for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people already in the U.S.

While we wait to see what Congress does, 1.8 million young people deserve better. Known as “Dreamers,” this entire generation of talented, dedicated students was born abroad but raised in this country without documented legal status. Since 2012, more than 740,000 Dreamers have been given Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, allowing them to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.

DACA students came to this country as children, they have grown up here, been schooled here, and dream of having productive, engaged lives here as American citizens. They think of themselves as Americans. They are exactly like the children of immigrants arriving in our country throughout most of our nation’s history, and today, they are like the children sitting next to them in school, except for the matter of permanent legal status.

Even with DACA status, these young people still face an uphill battle to achieve the promise of a college education. In 16 states, DACA students are either prevented from attending their in-state public college or university, or are forced to pay prohibitively expensive out-of-state tuition to attend their home-state public institutions. “Locked out” states include Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

TheDream.US, a national foundation created by former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham and his wife, Amanda Bennett, has established the Opportunity Scholarship program to support upwards of 500 Dreamers over the next few years. Opportunity Scholars receive sufficient scholarship funds to fully pay for their tuition, fees, room and board.

In fall 2016, Eastern Connecticut State University was one of two institutions nationally—Delaware State University is the other—to enroll the very first cohort of Opportunity Scholars. In addition to 42 eligible Dreamers from the 16 locked-out states, the Dream.US foundation is also supporting five DACA students from Connecticut to attend Eastern. No public funds are being used to support Eastern’s Dreamers, and no in-state students are being denied admission because of the program.

Our 42 out-of-state Dreamers come from eight locked out states—Georgia, Idaho, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Indiana—and from 13 different countries, ranging from Brazil to India, Ecuador and Zimbabwe. Applications are already being accepted for fall 2017, and Eastern will likely enroll another 75 Opportunity Scholars.

How are our Opportunity Scholars doing in this first year at Eastern? All 42 out-of-state Opportunity Scholars—as well as all five from Connecticut—have successfully weathered their first semester on campus and are back for the spring. The median GPA of our out-of-state Dreamers is an impressive 3.58! They are already becoming campus leaders—as members of the Honors Program, as resident assistants and as senators on the Student Government Association. The key has been to treat them with respect—they aren’t singled out nor housed in a single dormitory or made to feel different from their peers on campus. They receive the same personal attention for which our close-knit, public liberal arts campus is known.

When I speak to our Opportunity Scholars—and I make an effort to seek them out individually whenever possible—I am struck by their gratitude and their determination to succeed. These young people—like the native-born citizens they sit next to in class—are our nation’s future leaders, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers and business leaders. Their talents, work ethic and diversity bode well for our economy and society.

As much as this success story at Eastern is uplifting, the broader issue of the future of Dreamers in our country is a test of this nation’s moral fiber. Everyone in this country—except Native Americans—has ancestors who originally came from other lands to create the rich diversity we have today in the U.S. Like other members of American society, motivated, high-achieving immigrant students, no matter their nation of origin, should also have access to education—the key to social mobility and economic security in the U.S. That must be our commitment to them, knowing that what we get in return—a rich diversity of culture, religion, race and political thought—is the core strength of our democracy.

It is not by accident that our nation is the world’s melting pot, brimming with people of all nationalities and backgrounds. The U.S.—the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known—has enjoyed a moral standing throughout the world because it serves as a beacon of hope to all who long for freedom and opportunity. Acknowledging the right of today’s Dreamers to pursue a college education will reaffirm this moral high ground. Returning them to home nations that they cannot remember would be a disservice to these young people, would prevent them from making a contribution to our society, and would diminish our moral standing around the globe.

At Eastern, we will continue to enroll, support and advocate for the outstanding Opportunity Scholars who have come to us to earn their college degree. We urge all educators—all Americans!—to lobby our congressional leaders to do the right thing—extend the American Dream to a deserving generation of Dreamers while pursuing a viable long-term solution to the immigration issue.

Elsa Nunez is president of Eastern Connecticut State University. This piece first ran on the Web site of the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org).