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Lennie Mahler, Deseret News
Diego Ibanez leads the Salt Lake Dreamers as they gather in front of EnergySolutions Arena on Wednesday night before the Jazz game to promote the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants a chance at residency through higher education or military service.

While her classmates were applying for scholarships, investigating colleges and looking into career options her junior year of high school, Sarai Frost was confronting a painful reality.

"I had dreams for my life," she recalled, brown eyes filling with tears. "I wanted to be a lawyer." But as an undocumented immigrant, her future wasn't bright. Though she could attend college, without a Social Security number, getting a job after graduation was out of the question.

Undocumented immigrants may now have reason to hope.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act passed in the House 216-198 late Wednesday night. The bill, which has been tossed around Congress since 2001, would grant legal residency to undocumented college students and members of the armed forces.

"I want to be excited, but at the same time I'm trying not to be," said Frost, now a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom. The DREAM Act must still go before the Senate. A vote is scheduled for Thursday morning but it is unlikely to occur because of ongoing Republican filibuster tactics.

All Utah House representatives voted against the bill, including Democrat Rep. Jim Matheson who called the DREAM Act a "piecemeal" approach to the immigration problem. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz voted no purely on principle ("It's amnesty, and I pledged not to support amnesty"), and Rep. Rob Bishop at least partially because of dissatisfaction with the DREAM Act's legislative process.

"This is a discussion Congress needs to have, and there could be a positive result," said Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for Bishop. "But to try to ram this bill through the House in a lame-duck session using procedural rules to prevent debate or improvements does a complete disservice to taxpayers and to those who would be affected by these new policies."

If passed, the act could put an estimated 2.1 million illegal immigrants in the United States on the path to citizenship, according to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. In Utah, about 23,000 youths and young adults stand to benefit.

Aside from opening a path to legal status for the children of illegal immigrants, though, some argue that, in Utah, the act will have little effect. Utah is one of 11 states that offers illegal immigrants in-state tuition — a practice that, if the bill passes, will go national. If anything, they argue that the act will boost the state's economy. Others worry, however, that, with a green card on the table, illegal immigrants will flood Utah's already overcrowded colleges, costing taxpayers millions.

"This policy will absolutely boost the economy," said Juan Manual Ruiz, president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce. He, along with a group of college students stopped by Matheson's office Tuesday to drop off a symbolic check made out to "The American People" and ask for a "yes" vote.

According to a report by the Congressional Budget Office, the House version of the DREAM Act would reduce federal deficits by about $2.2 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate's version would reduce deficits by about $1.4 billion.

"When someone has a college education, they are going to make more money," said Wendy Sefsaf, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. "When they have more money, they spend more money. The more people shopping in Utah the better."

Beyond salaries, college graduates tend to enjoy better health and contribute more to society. Sefsaf said the act is also likely to boost Hispanic graduation rates.

"It's hard to stay in school when you have no hope," Frost said. Though she graduated and attended a few years of college, two of her brothers dropped out. "So many students don't reach their full potential because they know they're never going to do better than a janitorial or fast-food job."

In a report released last week, however, The Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-immigrant, low-immigration think-tank based in Washington, D.C., estimated that the DREAM Act will cost states $6.2 billion a year because it grants undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

Utah has offered illegal immigrants in-state tuition since 2002. This year, 643 undocumented immigrants attended Utah colleges and universities. The Utah System of Higher Education is not funded on a per-student basis, but in-state tuition is subsidized by taxpayers. Depending on which school a student chooses, the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition ranges from $2,800 a semester to more than $19,000.

"The amount of money we're spending to educate illegal immigrants is one of the hidden secrets of this whole debate," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. He estimates the state is spending $7 million to subsidize tuition for illegal immigrants. "We can't afford it anymore."

Steve Camarota, director of research for The Center for Immigration Studies, said the DREAM Act will likely increase those costs because more students will enroll.

"When you throw legal residency into the equation, you change the whole dynamic," Camarota said. "The numbers of illegal immigrant students is going to explode. I mean, they'd be fools not to take advantage of this opportunity."

Utah colleges, in the meantime, are already bursting at the seams. Teachers at Utah Valley University are giving lectures in the hallways. At Salt Lake Community College, which is the 6th fastest growing community college in the nation, they had to add an extra semester to accommodate students.

"We've had to engage in some pretty sophisticated management activities to handle the number of students we have," said Joy Tlou, director of public relations for Salt Lake Community College. And — because of state budget cuts — they've had to do it with progressively less money.

Despite challenges, though, Tlou said the institution will do whatever it takes to accommodate the new law if it passes.

"We are an open access institution," he said. "The whole idea is to give people access to educational services and experiences. Anybody who is qualified to come to our institution is welcome to attend."

As students, undocumented immigrants' only hope is to "contribute to society," said Elizabeth, an undocumented student at UVU who did not want her last name published. A group of students gathered outside the EnergySolutions Arena Wednesday night to raise awareness about their plight.

"I have been raised American and I have always been taught the sky is the limit," she said. "Please don't but walls on the future I aspire to."

During a two-hour floor debate Wednesday, Democrats framed the bill as a civil rights issue. Republicans called it "nightmare" approach to amnesty.

"The DREAM Act symbolizes what it means to be American," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It's about equality. It's about opportunity. It's about the future."

Chaffetz said the act rewards illegal behavior.

"I want to prioritize Americans first," he said. "We have record unemployment, and we also have millions of people trying to go through the (immigration) process legally and lawfully. Those are the people we should prioritize."

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The late hour of the House vote on the DREAM Act caused voting in the Senate to be pushed to Thursday and tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. MST. However, it's highly unlikely that the Senate will actually vote on the DREAM Act at that time as GOP senators remain firm in their filibustering resolve to prevent any substantive bills from reaching a binding vote unless and until Democrats bring up for a vote the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for a vote — something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday won't occur until Friday at the earliest.

Frost is crossing her fingers.

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com, jaskar@desnews.com