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Why Does This Wall Street Billionaire Care About Helping Immigrant DREAMers?

Last year, IP reported on a new fund, TheDream.US, that provides scholarship funds to immigrant students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS), similar criteria to that of the DREAM Act.

The fund was started by then-Washington Post CEO Donald Graham; Democratic Party activist and philanthropist Henry Munoz; and Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce under George W. Bush. And it quickly lined up some big backers, too, raising more than $30 million from funders that include the Gates Foundation, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, and the PepsiCo Foundation.

Now add the Pershing Square Foundation to the list of funders. Pershing Square, founded by New York hedge fund prodigy William Ackman, has given $10 million to TheDream.US to support its efforts to provide college scholarships of up to $25,000 over four years to immigrant students who exist in a kind of legal limbo.

Such students are sometimes referred to as “DREAMers,” a reference to the DREAM Act. Because of their immigration students, these students are not eligible for federal student aid programs, such as Pell Grants. The scholarships enable recipient students to cover the cost of tuition, college fees, and books. In exchange, they must achieve a minimum GPA of 3.0 and maintain their DACA or TPS status. TheDream.US works with partner institutions across the country, most of which are public colleges and universities in states where undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition rates.

Given the searing heat around the issue of immigration and the political conflict in congress, some state legislatures, and even federal courts, it is unlikely that these students’ uncertain status will be resolved any time soon. Critics of the DREAM Act and of President Obama’s executive orders to stop deportations of immigrants with DACA status claim these actions reward illegal immigration and create incentives for more people to enter the U.S. illegally.

For Pershing Square, the $10 million gift to TheDream.US is a move into new terrain, but it’s consistent with the foundation’s commitment to fund organizations that engage with important social issues, as well as the social justice concerns of its funder. Ackman, who started the foundation with his wife, Karen, in 2006 and has signed the Giving Pledge, cites philosopher John Rawls as a major influence on his philanthropy. As a Harvard undergraduate, Ackman was introduced to Rawls’ 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, considered one of the most important works of modern political philosophy. In it, Rawls advocates a notion of justice as fairness in which the most just outcomes are those that benefit the least well-off.

Pershing Square Foundation’s grantmaking reflects a Rawlsian influence, including its $25 million gift to the troubled Newark public schools, its support of the Robin Hood Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the Innocence Project, and poor African farmers. Karen Ackman serves on the board of Human Rights Watch. With its gift to TheDream.US, the Ackmans and their Pershing Square Foundation have used their wealth to serve another marginalized—and often vilified—population, but one with enormous potential to produce positive benefits for American society given the right educational and career opportunities. The Dream.US hopes its scholarship program will help do just that.

Another story here is about how U.S. wealth elites, particularly in tech and finance, are determined to ensure that the United States remains a nation that’s friendly to immigrants. To people like Zuckerberg and Ackman, immgrants aren’t some kind of threat to America’s identity; they are the future of its economic vitality.

Of course, the Tea Party and major elements of the GOP are in a very different place on this issue, and it will be interesting to see, as 2016 approaches, how Republican candidates try to curry favor both with base voters and major donors on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.