The recently-passed California Dream Act allows undocumented residents to access state-funded grants and fee waivers to pay for their higher education starting in 2013. This legislation does not solve the national problem of illegal immigration, but it is a positive step forward. Opening the door for state financial aid creates opportunities for working-class undocumented residents. Through higher education, these individuals can validate their willingness to be active members of society while learning the career skills necessary to break out of poverty.
California's undocumented residents, short of an efficient pathway to citizenship, now enjoy many opportunities with which to improve their lives. According to current California law, undocumented students can already pay in-state tuition rates if they graduated from a California high school and can prove that are actively working toward legalization. Also, a bill was signed in July that permits private organizations to donate to undocumented students.
Though state governments must continue to rein-in spending, some programs have long-term benefits that outweigh the short-term costs. The California Department of Finance estimates that 2,500 undocumented students would be made eligible for state aid provided through the Cal Grant program, which assists low-income students. Providing state-aid to the 25,000 undocumented students that graduate from California high schools each year would amount to $14.5 million, or 1 percent of all Cal Grant funds.
Any increased spending provides a challenge to states these days, but the relatively low cost is outweighed by overall benefits to undocumented residents and, over the long-run, to society. Undocumented students who receive state-funded and hence taxpayer-supported, financial aid have a lot to prove. They must build better lives, most from very little, while continuously expressing their efforts to become legal citizens. Allowing them to receive in-state financial assistance weakens the barrier they must cross to legality. With a degree, undocumented students will have access to more well-paying jobs that will allow them, in turn, to reward the society that helped them so much.
Giving more opportunities to undocumented workers will prove futile, however, without federal immigration reform. Even with a degree, college graduates will be unable to work legally in any state. Therefore, this legislation will serve only as a bandaid to a much larger wound. Solving the immigration issue will invariably do more to help undocumented workers integrate into society than even this legislation or any of California's other positive steps.