[Editor’s note: A longer version of this article also was published in The Nonprofit Quarterly’s Cohen Report.]
Nonprofits should be on the front lines of our society trying to protect, aid and support immigrant children and families regardless of the documentation they might possess or lack.
The most important legislative initiative related to nonprofits and immigration — other than comprehensive immigration reform — is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM.
Hundreds of thousands of undocumented children in the U.S. attend school, graduate high school and find themselves not only without higher-education opportunities because of their legal status in the U.S., but without opportunity to become legal residents or citizens unless their parents do so for themselves.
The DREAM Act would make undocumented immigrant high school graduates, or those who have earned their GED diploma, eligible to apply for conditional permanent resident status if they planned to go to college or enter the military.
And if they finished college or served two years in the military, they would be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Although the legislation would not require states to provide in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant high school graduates, it would remove federal penalties for states that do provide in-state tuitions.
Qualified immigrants also would be eligible for federal college loans and work-study programs.
The legislative intent is straightforward: These kids are in the U.S., going to school. They want to go to college or join the U.S. military. They are doing all the right things anyone would want of permanent residents or citizens.
And they happen to be young immigrants without full documentation due to no fault of their own.
Why prevent them from becoming assets to the nation by denying them the opportunity to attend college, continue their educations, and expand their skills?
According to the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens, 60,000 to 65,000 undocumented young people graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
Eighty thousand undocumented kids turn 18 each year in the U.S., but about one-sixth do not graduate from high school.
DREAM Act opponents fear these young people will scarf up higher-education slots and benefits to the detriment of children who live in the U.S. legally, and that allowing for in-state tuitions will lead to preferences for undocumented immigrants over other state college applicants.
Many immigrants look to service in the U.S. military as an avenue to citizenship.
Just like previous generations of immigrants to the U.S., they look to military service for economic and social advancement and typically are more interested than longer-term residents in joining the armed forces. The DREAM Act would make this possible.
Should nonprofits support the DREAM Act?
Some advocates might say approaching immigration reform piecemeal with bills like the DREAM Act that focus on age or constituency will delay and undermine progress toward comprehensive immigration reform.
By sidestepping the act, nonprofits can make some sort of partially-formed political statement about immigration reform, but at the cost of the hopes and aspirations of thousands of immigrant kids wanting to make good.
It doesn’t require being an immigration group to support the DREAM Act.
How about youth service groups, education groups, and high schools and colleges?
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, for example, has taken a public stand in favor of the legislation.
The DREAM Act, she says, “would throw a lifeline to these students who are already working hard in our middle and high schools and living in our communities by granting them the temporary legal status that would allow them to pursue post-secondary education.”
The positive trend in pending legislation that is reflected in the DREAM Act, opening up public programs and services for access by undocumented immigrants, counters the punitive anti-immigrant animus that still exists in so many places in the U.S.
Several proposals, for example, would deny social security and health-care reform to illegal immigrants.
The punitive, blaming strain in American politics is surprisingly resilient and sometimes bipartisan, in this case picking immigrants rather than other easily targeted groups.
A group does not need to be an “immigrant organization” to be involved in debates about the DREAM Act, extending services to immigrants in other programs such as plans for new health-insurance coverage, and overall immigration reform.
The reason is not a question of positions on immigration or immigrants, but beliefs in social justice and human rights.
The charitable tax exemption is built on providing services and representation to people who are least-served in our economy and our society.
By virtue of the humanitarian reason for their existence, nonprofits should be playing a greater a role in these national legislative debates.
Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.