Monday, June 20, 2005

Law Leads to Degrees But Not Jobs in Texas

These extraordinary students, the progeny of legislative policy passed in Texas in 2001 (House Bill 1403), deserve the very opportunity that they have earned. Passage of the DREAM ACT is what’s needed.

The DREAM ACT will 1) enable immigrant youth who either go to college or join the military to acquire temporary (and later, permanent residential) status; and 2) enable the U.S. to recoup or make good on the cost of our nation's own investment in this population through the years of K-12 schooling that they receive. Though a hot-button issue, this is one that all of our leadership should seriously discuss—for our own nation's sake, as well as theirs. Indeed, there are at least 8 states that have copied Texas with comparable legislation for immigrants at the state level. Now, we need to get these degree holders employed!

Law Leads to Degrees But Not Jobs in Texas


Iride Gramajo’s dream of becoming a mathematics professor has always been a long shot. Growing up on a coffee plantation in Guatemala, she didn’t have access to a good school. And even after she slipped into Texas illegally with her family in 1995, a college education was unthinkable on her mother’s salary as a nanny. But a 2001 state law allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates made it possible for her to attend the University of Houston. And this spring she earned her B.S. degree and was accepted into Houston’s doctoral program in mathematics.

So far, so good. But despite their talents, undocumented residents like Gramajo and her classmates stand no chance of being hired by a reputable U.S. institution or company. In fact, it will take an act of Congress for Gramajo to work in her chosen profession. And that’s exactly what a bipartisan group of senators hopes will happen this year.

Gramajo is one of an estimated 90 undocumented students graduating this year from public 4-year colleges and universities in Texas, with another 1200 in the state’s community colleges. And their numbers will only increase: Since 2001, eight other states have passed their own in-state tuition laws making higher education more affordable to immigrants lacking proper documentation.

But granting them legal residency, which would allow them to work lawfully in the United States, is a federal matter. That’s why senators Orrin Hatch (R–UT) and Richard Durbin (D–IL) are hoping that their Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act will become part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that Congress is expected to take up later this year. “These students should not be penalized for having an immigration status for which they are not responsible,” says Adam Elggren, a Hatch aide. Instead, says Elggren, “we should be welcoming them to become productive members of our society.”

The DREAM Act would put undocumented college students on the path to citizenship by qualifying them for a green card, which would enable them to join the nation’s workforce in science, engineering, and other occupations. “It seems like a huge waste to tell them in the end that they cannot contribute to the economy,” says an aide to Texas representative Rick Noriega (D–Houston), who helped write the state law.

But others say that giving them amnesty would snatch employment opportunities away from U.S. citizens and serve as an incentive for illegal immigration. “It would be a statement to the world that we have no intention of enforcing immigration laws,” says U.S. Senator Jeffrey Sessions (R–AL). A better alternative, says Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington, D.C., would be for undocumented students to “return to their native countries and apply their education there.”

That logic is bewildering to Carlos Hernandez, a petroleum engineer graduating from the University of Texas (UT), Austin, who says he played no role in his family’s decision to move to the United States from Mexico when he was 9. When he was in high school his father, a construction worker, and his mother, a waitress, took him to a career fair in Houston where UT officials told him about the university’s perfect record of placing petroleum engineering grads. “If I got permission to work in the United States, it would not be a reward for illegal immigration but for the 4 years of effort I put in to become an engineer,” says Hernandez. Although he’s applied to work at Mexican companies, he’ll most likely end up pursuing graduate studies at UT.

Gramajo says she is optimistic that the DREAM Act will pass before she receives her doctorate. “My mentors have told me that there’s a high demand for math professors in the U.S., so much so that universities have to hire faculty from Europe and Asia,” she says. “That gives me hope of being able to work here.” – by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee


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