Supporters hope federal DREAM act will complement state bill

An immigration reform bill now stalled in the U.S. Senate could prove the perfect federal complement to a law Connecticut Democrats are eager to enact next year, backers of the state measure say.

“I certainly hope it will pass the Senate,” said state Sen. Martin Looney, “Because what we’re proposing dovetails really nicely with the federal bill.”

The federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act passed narrowly in the House last Wednesday, moving to the Senate where it was tabled. A vote is expected this week, before the Senate adjourns.

The DREAM Act would provide a provisional path to citizenship for the undocumented children of illegal citizenship, provided they meet certain educational or military service requirements among others. It’s been introduced and killed in various iterations in Congress since 2001.

“Our bill will provide those children with in-state tuition to college,” said Looney, who will introduce the measure in the legislative session starting in January.

This is his second shot: the bill was passed by the legislature in 2007 but was vetoed by outgoing Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

“We’re not discouraged,” said state Rep. Juan Candelaria, a supporter of the Connecticut bill. “We passed the bill once before. Now we’re going to introduce it again.”

This time, though, supporters expect support from Gov.-elect Dan Malloy.

The two bills, in combination, would offer an easier path to citizenship and higher education for illegal immigrants living in Connecticut, who numbered about 110,000 as of 2009, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

But critics of the bills are numerous, and vocal.

On a federal level, Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in D.C., says his organization has opposed the DREAM act since it was first introduced in 2001.

“If you asked the typical alien why they came, they say, ‘We want to do better for our families.’ The DREAM act simply rewards this with benefits, which is what they were looking for when they broke the law in the first place,” Mehlman said.

“This also completely absolves the parents of the responsibility of the position they put their kids in. It’s amnesty for illegal aliens.”

In Connecticut, state Rep. Vin Candelora says he, along with other Republicans, opposed the bill in 2007. “And I will continue to be opposed to it for a number of reasons.”

Before Connecticut invests in sending illegal immigrants to school, says Candelora, the state needs to consider their lack of economic potential under current law.

“We need to make sure they can enter our workforce. It’s currently illegal for them to work, so I wouldn’t support using our tax dollars for this.”

So why extend amnesty to people breaking the law, who may not be able to secure work after attending school?

“These are kids who’ve been attending our schools for years,” says Candelaria. “A lot of them don’t even realize that they’re not citizens.”

“And there is a tremendous benefit here,” says Looney.  “Connecticut’s economic future depends on having a highly capable, educated workforce.”

Candelaria agrees, noting that many illegal immigrants have found employment. “They’re part of our working economy, they work in our local restaurants, and they contribute through labor and taxes.”

It’s unclear what the Connecticut bill would cost the state. A December 9 report from the Office of Legislative Research (OLR) says that in 2007, the Office of Fiscal Analysis predicted a potential revenue loss for the at-capacity University of Connecticut, but a potential increase for other state institutions looking for higher enrollment.

On a national level, the federal act could increase government revenue by $2.3 billion over 10 years, according to a report released last Thursday by the Congressional Budget Office. But that Act could cost the country more than $5 billion in healthcare and other expenses further down the road, as beneficiaries gain their citizenship.

But the Connecticut bill operates independently of the federal bill, says Looney. Several states, including California, have already adopted similar laws.

“California did it, as well as other states,” says Candelaria. “So there’s no reason Connecticut can’t do it too.”

But the same OLR report points out that while ten states currently allow in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants, four of those have seen court cases challenging that provision. One case, brought by U.S. citizens required to pay out-of-state tuition, was rejected by California’s Supreme Court.

Regardless, Candelora worries about a similar court challenge in Connecticut. “What exposure would we then have to the argument of discrimination against citizens paying out-of-state tuition?”

“And would we possibly then down the road be required to give everyone in-state-tuition?”

But Looney says the people in question are Connecticut residents at heart.

“The young people who could take advantage of this bill have been raised here,” says Looney. “They are people of Connecticut in every sense except birth.”