Undocumented immigrant students would find it easier to pay for college and achieve permanent residency under federal legislation expected to reach the Senate floor soon. The DREAM Act would remove barriers that prevent undocumented students from applying for financial aid for college.

Under DREAM, undocumented students could achieve conditional status as a permanent resident if they:

Do not have a criminal record.

Arrived in the United States before age 16.

Have lived in the U.S. for more than five years.

Obtain a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Meeting these criteria would allow them to get a Social Security number, a requirement for applying for college scholarships and loans. To become eligible for permanent residency, students would have to earn a college degree or be a student in good standing for two years in a degree program; enter the armed forces; or perform 910 hours of community service within six years of getting conditional status.

Since school districts are barred from asking students about immigration status, there is no solid count on the number in Chicago who might benefit from the act. A study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that about 20,000 undocumented high school students live in Chicago, and that roughly 3,500 of them graduated from high schools last June.

The lack of legal status makes undocumented students ineligible for activities that most youths take for granted, such as getting a drivers license, applying for jobs and participating in city youth programs. However, Farragut High School Counselor Eileen Ortiz believes the most serious obstacle these students face is the barrier to college financial aid.

Ortiz estimates that nearly one-third of Farragut’s 2,000 students are undocumented. “It saddens me because some of these kids want to go to college, and you know they would make it. They value education, but they can’t go because they don’t have the money,” she says.

Critics, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group, say the measure would encourage illegal immigration.

“The responsibility for their education is on their parents and their foreign government,” says Jack Martin, the group’s special project director. Martin also says the DREAM Act would siphon money and college spaces from U.S. citizens.

Members of Hey-U, a Chicago youth group that supports the DREAM Act, point out that the families of many immigrant students have jobs and pay taxes, and now call the United States their home.

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