When Sen. Kay Hagan voted against the DREAM Act in December, she joined with only a handful of other Democrats in handing President Barack Obama his sole setback of a very productive lame-duck session.
To educators like myself, Hagan’s opposition to the act is indefensible. However, she can redeem herself and regain our support by following through on her own rhetoric.
Hagan said that she would not support the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill, and that she would prefer a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system. Now, she should become one of the leading Democratic voices for immigration reform and ensure that a comprehensive bill includes DREAM Act-like provisions.
Here’s what I mean: The North Carolina senator is positioned to be one of the key writers of this year’s reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law. She has a personal interest in education.
The DREAM Act would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to use their education as a path to productive citizenship. Students who have grown up and been educated here would be allowed to become citizens and use their education to strengthen our country.
There are an estimated 51,000 undocumented students in North Carolina, a number that clearly has a direct correlation to the high dropout rate of Latino and other language-minority students. Hagan and other lawmakers who want to see our nation improve its education results should see how comprehensive immigration reform supports students’ aspirations for higher education and to become citizens.
One component of the new No Child Left Behind act is likely to be an effort to improve the quality of teachers and to increase the number of highly qualified teachers in struggling schools, as well as in poor and rural school districts.
One of my former students is an undocumented Latina who graduated from high school with a 3.5 GPA and dreams of being a teacher. She is an outstanding leader who won a $20,000 scholarship. Unfortunately, without access to federal student loans, she is struggling to make it through college, taking only a couple of classes at a time.
This young woman could be part of an evolving educational workforce that better reflects the demographic changes of our student population over the 21st century – bilingual, bicultural and ready to compete on an international level.
Does it really make any sense for our broken immigration system to prevent this outstanding young woman from becoming a teacher? For even if she does graduate from college, she would still be unable to work legally. Given our critical need for a more college-educated work force in a global economy, denying tens of thousands of deserving young people the chance to contribute fully to their country is short-sighted and foolish.
Hagan should combine her education advocacy with an active role in negotiating a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Its provisions should include a clear path to citizenship for undocumented individuals under age 35 who have graduated from a U.S. high school or completed a GED. These students should also have access to federal student loans and unhindered access to public colleges and universities.
Of course, any successful bill will require some bipartisan support. We must leave behind our enforcement-heavy immigration policy, as it is neither reasonable nor cost-effective. While a new path to citizenship will almost certainly require immigrants to pay a fine as penalty for having come here illegally, we should also provide incentives for them to pay back our society in productive ways.
Hagan could introduce a provision based on the Federal Perkins Loan program that would allow immigrants to repay their debt to our nation through successful service in certain forms of public, military or teaching service employment. Doing so would allow them to move through the naturalization process ahead of others, recognizing their commitment to our country.
Hagan could gain enormous political goodwill by leading the way on both education and immigration reform. I imagine some young, newly minted citizens might even be among her most excited supporters.