They Can Dream, Can’t They?

Oscar Handlin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who died a few weeks ago at the age of 95, famously wrote a half-century ago that he set out to write a history of immigrants in American, and then realized that “the immigrants were American history.”

All the more so in New York City. From the gang planks at Castle Garden (the precursor to Ellis Island) to the arrival gates at John F. Kennedy Airport, immigrants have redefined what it means to be a New Yorker. That remains true today, even though some, if not many, immigrants live and work in the shadows because they lack proper documents.

New York’s history, then, is intertwined with the history of immigrants. So it is proper and fitting that the state Board of Regents is, as of this writing, on the verge of becoming more active on behalf of the more than 340,000 illegal immigrants who attend public schools throughout the state. On Tuesday, the board was expected to urge Congress to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants through higher education. The board may also ask the State Legislature to offer financial assistance to illegal immigrants who wish to attend public colleges and universities in the state.

These efforts are in response to Washington’s failure to pass legislation known as the Dream Act, which would make it easier for illegal immigrants to earn college degrees and an opportunity to become citizens. With the measure stalled on Capitol Hill, individual states are attempting to create their own versions of the Dream Act. California, for example, recently created taxpayer-supported scholarships for illegal immigrants who qualify for admission into the state’s public universities and colleges.

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, framed the issue in very practical terms. Speaking of the large number of illegal immigrants in the state’s schools, she said: “These people are going to be citizens of this country some day, and we need to prepare them for a life of independence.”

Keeping them in the shadows, denying them access to 21st-century education, achieves nothing. That’s why the state allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition in New York’s public college and universities. But that’s not enough—although in-state tuition is a relative bargain at just over $5,000 (plus another $15,000 for room, board and fees), it still is a sum far too large for many families.

The story of immigration in New York is a story of hard work rewarded, of ambition realized, and of identities transformed. For that story to continue, immigrants—now more than ever—need advocates like Dr. Tisch and her colleagues on the Board of Regents.

By helping immigrants succeed, we help ourselves. That’s simple common sense.

They Can Dream, Can’t They?