On Immigration, New York Must Follow Obama’s Lead – and Rick Perry’s

by David J. Skorton, President

Published in Spanish in El Diario
Oct. 18, 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry has become the frontrunner in the Republican Presidential primary as a solid conservative. But one of his biggest accomplishments was an act of sensible bi-partisanship and moderation on one of America’s most controversial issues: immigration. Now, New York should follow the Texan’s lead.

Let me back up. Right now, a high school student – let’s call him Paul – is about to apply to Cornell University. With an outstanding academic record, he is likely to be admitted – but there’s a problem.

Paul’s parents are undocumented immigrants. They brought him to the United States when he was a small child, hoping, like so many others, that they would find better opportunities here. They did. They worked hard, paid taxes, and sent Paul to a decade of public school.

Immigrant families like Paul’s have contributed enormously to America. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, a national bipartisan group founded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies that employ ten million people worldwide – were conceived by immigrants or their children. The National Venture Capital Association estimates that over half of the high tech startups in Silicon Valley have an immigrant founder.

But this record of achievement is now threatened by our broken immigration system. Through no fault of his own, and despite his good grades and hard work, Paul, and tens of thousands of hard working young men and women like him, is undocumented. Without legal immigration status, he may not be able to fully succeed and contribute to American society.

For years, I have watched with frustration as our political leaders have repeatedly failed to pass commonsense immigration reforms. The DREAM act, which has languished on the floor of Congress for a year, for example, would give qualified undocumented youths like Paul the chance to earn citizenship through college education or military service. They would get the rights they need and deserve, and we would all benefit from seeing them meet their full potential.

This August, President Obama broke through the deadlock in Washington with a commonsense announcement. From now on, students without criminal records who graduate from American high schools and want to attend college will not be deported.

A good first step, President Obama’s action is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. Though thousands of students will no longer face the threat of deportation, their future remains uncertain. Without a clear path to citizenship, undocumented students may not be able to find a job – or start a business – when they graduate, denying them the chance to put the skills they have learned to use.

Where Washington has failed, however, the states can succeed — as Governor Perry has shown. In 2001, Perry signed the pioneering Texas DREAM act, which allowed qualified children of undocumented immigrants the right to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates. Other states have followed suit. Earlier this summer, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act, which will ease access to privately-funded financial aid for undocumented college students.

New York should take the next step. The New York DREAM Act, sponsored by Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, would give undocumented students across New York State access to student aid, state IDs and, crucially, the ability to work.

New York cannot confer citizenship on its own, and state law will not take the place of an urgently needed nationwide overhaul of our immigration laws. But as a home to millions of immigrants and their children and the place where generations of people from across the world have thrived, New York can and should lead the way.

Immigrants will continue to help keep America prosperous for generations to come, but only if we give Paul and thousands like him the chance.

Dr. David Skorton is the President of Cornell University.