Chancellor Birgeneau urges Congress to pass the DREAM Act

Leaders in higher education, including UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, have called on Congress to take immediate action on the DREAM Act, a bipartisan effort to help young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States to achieve the dream of a college education and a path to legal residency and eventual US citizenship.

On a July 20 press teleconference organized by United We Dream, a broad coalition of DREAM Act supporters, and meant to highlight the widespread support for the bill by college and university presidents, Birgeneau joined the heads of the University of Houston, Eastern Washington University, and Northern Virginia Community College in urging speedy passage of the DREAM Act — also known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — as “an issue of social justice.” The press conference is part of a three-day series of activities focused on Washington to advocate support for immediate passage of the DREAM Act.

The bill would bring two key reforms to current immigration law, under which young people generally derive their immigration status from their parents — meaning that thousands of undocumented graduates of U.S. high schools face often-insurmountable obstacles to attending college.

Under the DREAM Act, students who came to the U.S. at age 15 or younger at least five years before the bill’s enactment would qualify for conditional permanent-resident status, enabling them to work, drive, and attend school here in the U.S. and eventually achieve permanent resident status. The bill would also make it possible for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, as they do now in some states including California. As importantly, it would make it easier for undocumented students to receive financial aid, without which many of these students cannot meet the costs of attending college, even with in-state tuition.

Birgeneau, a longtime proponent of the reforms, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in July 2007 that the obstacles currently placed in the way of immigrant students are “a terrible waste of young talent — talent that this country desperately needs.”

Speaking to reporters at the teleconference, he stressed the importance of referring to these young people as “undocumented students” rather than “illegal immigrants” — a term that he finds abhorrent because in his view no human being should be described as “illegal” — and noted that students admitted to UC Berkeley are the doctors, lawyers, researchers, and thought leaders of tomorrow. In addition, Birgeneau said, “With all of the challenges that California is facing, we must take advantage of the extraordinary talents of these exceptional young people, many of whom have overcome incredible challenges to gain admission to great universities like UC Berkeley.”

The chancellor noted the support of California’s U.S. senators for the reforms, but called on them to take more of a leadership role.

“As a society,” declared Birgeneau, “we should do everything we can to support these top students who have earned the right to a college education.”