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What the New Illinois Dream Act Means for Undocumented Students

Educators, business leaders and immigrant advocacy groups have lobbied Congress to pass the national DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act for over ten years. The Illinois state House and Senate passed this historic education bill in May 2011, which will provide opportunities for scholarships, college savings programs and prepaid tuition to all Illinois residents, including undocumented students, at no cost to taxpayers.

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By Polly Peterson

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Who Are Undocumented Students?

Undocumented students are immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The Urban Institute estimated 65,000 youths nationwide fell into this category as of 2002. Currently, under U.S. law, they're guaranteed a K-12 public school education. Unfortunately, many drop out before graduating from high school and aren't adequately counseled on viable college options.

Undocumented students who have finished high school or obtained a GED may pursue U.S. citizenship through a 6-year conditional permanent residency that requires them to complete two years of college or U.S. military service. Other conditions may also apply, such as being younger than 15 when they immigrated. Conditional permanent residents can apply for student loans and federal work-study programs, but undocumented students cannot. Neither group is eligible to receive federal financial aid.

Since 2003, undocumented students meeting certain criteria have qualified for in-state tuition as set forth in Illinois' House Bill 60. Currently, undocumented students in California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington can pay in-state tuition rates, usually after graduating from a local high school which they attended for at least three years.

What Are the Benefits?

The Illinois DREAM Act, which is modeled after the federal DREAM Act, will make college scholarship money available to undocumented students. Additionally, all Illinois residents will be eligible to apply for the state's college savings (Bright Start) and prepaid tuition (College Illinois) programs.

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Another benefit of the Illinois DREAM Act will be the ability for recipients to obtain state driver's certificates, enabling them to transport themselves to and from school. Illinois residents who don't have social security numbers aren't eligible for licenses to drive legally, nor can they insure their vehicles. DREAM students will be able to apply for Illinois driver's certificates, which aren't driver's licenses, but can be used to drive legally and acquire auto insurance, reducing the number of uninsured motorists on our highways.

Where Does the Funding Come From?

The Illinois DREAM Act is not funded by tax dollars. Scholarships will be privately funded and a volunteer Illinois Student Assistance Commission will oversee education counseling, research financial needs and raise and administer funds. Fees will be charged to applicants for Illinois driver's certificates to defray the costs.

When Does It Start?

On May 4, 2011, the Illinois Senate passed the education bill with a bipartisan majority of 45-11 in favor. The Illinois House passed the Illinois DREAM Act with a 61-53 vote on May 26. Governor Pat Quinn (D-IL) has released a statement that he will sign the legislation, forecasting a favorable future for the education of immigrants in the state. Once the DREAM Act is signed, Illinois will become the first state to offer private scholarships to help the children of immigrants afford a college education.

Learn how a national organization is promoting academic achievement of underprivileged youth in our interview with Minds Matter.

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