As Local Immigration Debates Rage, Rahm Proposes Plan for Chicago DREAMers
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, is often known for his political expediency rather than principled moral stances, which has angered progressive activists of all stripes in the past. That debate is renewed with news that Emanuel is proposing what some see as a big to curry favor with immigrants rights groups.
The plan to offer loans to undocumented college students—a “Chicago DREAM Act”—is one of the few local proposals to extend opportunities for the undocumented at a time when virulent anti-immigrant legislature is in vogue.
Rahm, who is currently running for mayor of Chicago, announced his proposal last week on the Spanish-language television channel Telemundo. The plan, titled the “New Americans Agenda,” would allow undocumented youth access to student loans. Emanuel claimed he would try to raise $5 million from local business leaders to lend to DREAMers heading to college. Currently, many education funding options available to native-born citizens are denied to undocumented students.
The proposal, if passed, would be a push back against what Campus Progress writer Catherine Traywick called the “anti-immigrant and arguably anti-education measures” from Arizona and other states in recent years. In 2006, Arizona passed Proposition 300, a bill that banned public funding and in-state tuition to undocumented students in the state. Since then, Colorado has followed suit, and South Carolina and Georgia have banned undocumented students from attending their universities altogether.
And general anti-immigrant sentiment seems to been on the rise nationally. Since the DREAM Act’s failure at the end of the 111th Congress and the new Republican gains in the 112th, the fight for immigration reform has moved from the national to the state and local level. This has largely meant an increased anti-immigrant push from the right, most notably in the legislative effort underway in 14 states to challenge the 14th amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for anyone born in the United States, regardless of the immigration status of their parents. And before the 112th Congress, of course, there was Arizona’s SB 1070.
Emanuel’s proposal is an exception to this legislative wave. It joins the recently reintroduced “California Dream Act,” a bill revived in California’s state legislature last week that would also expand funding opportunities for undocumented students.
Calling either proposal a localized version of the DREAM Act is slightly misleading, since the original bill proposed by immigrant rights advocates would have included a path to citizenship for undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children. Both proposals deal solely with financial aid for undocumented students, allowing more DREAMers to attend college but not addressing their difficulty finding work post-graduation. (Implementing a path to citizenship for undocumented youth would be beyond Emanuel’s capabilities if he is elected mayor of Chicago.) Still, the proposal is one of the few pro-immigrant proposals in a new year that has seen mostly anti-immigrant policy discussions.
In Chicago, Emanuel’s announcement has been met with some skepticism. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was arrested at a civil disobedience for immigration reform last year, spoke some strong words against the former White House chief of staff: "He has not stood up for immigrants. He has not moved comprehensive immigration reform forward. He has not made the right decisions, he has made political decisions."
Other Chicago activists had similar criticisms. Jenny Dale, an organizer with the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition who had worked to pass the DREAM Act, wanted to see Emanuel move on immigration while in the White House.
“He should’ve been supporting and pushing the DREAM Act when it was a piece of national legislation,” she stated. “I think it’s great that he wants to do something local, but it’s too late in terms of making a long-term impact on the lives of DREAMers.”
To Tania Unzueta, an undocumented graduate student in Chicago and a member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, Emanuel’s plan “feels dirty.” She took issue with the naming of the plan after the legalization bill.
“To call a scholarship program the DREAM Act, and think that that addresses the needs of undocumented youth, signals to me that he doesn't really understand what our lives are like. We need to go to school and access to scholarships, but we also need jobs to pay for our education and to help support our families.
“Rahm Emmanuel is one of the most powerful men in the United States, and has often been in positions where he could have helped move the DREAM Act or immigration reform forward, and instead he was a roadblock. Now he offers us scholarships?”
Despite activists’ frustration with Emanuel’s local post-DREAM push—and whatever his true motivations in pushing the act—its benefit for undocumented students is undeniable. If nothing else, if some states and cities push for local progressive reform while others go the way of Arizona, the ensuing mess of opposing policies from locale to locale might prove just the headache to muster the political will necessary to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the coming years.
Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.
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