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Hope for America’s Undocumented Youth

Hope for America’s Undocumented Youth: the DREAM Act

by COHA Research Associate Julia Nissen

On July 1st, Barack Obama delivered his longest immigration speech to date at American University, where he called for congressional action to fix our “broken immigration system.” He took a pragmatic position, calling neither for total amnesty nor mass deportation, but rather a comprehensive immigration reform that would both increase border enforcement and provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for those already residing in the U.S. illegally.

Critics have claimed that, as usual on such matters, the speech was short on specifics. One of the only programs he explicitly mentioned, and stated his lasting support for, was the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This popular measure, most recently introduced in 2009, is currently working its way through the congressional legislative process. The bill would provide undocumented students the opportunity to gain conditional citizenship after completing two years of college or military service, and six years displaying “good moral character” as a U.S. resident. States will also be allowed to determine if DREAM Act students would be eligible for in-state tuition payments.

Students across the country, many of whom are undocumented and risk deportation if they publicly acknowledge their status, have expressed their support for this bill. Given that the federal government has made little progress toward immigration reform, frustrated state governments have lashed out with mean-spirited and poorly planned laws such as Arizona’s SB1070, making both legal and “illegal” immigrants in this country fearful for their future and their safety.

Students who promote the DREAM Act—DREAMers—have emphasized that they are Americans more than anything else, raised in the U.S. and taught in American schools. Now, they either face the difficulty of entering college as an undocumented student, or the near impossibility of obtaining legitimate employment even after college graduation. Despite strongly xenophobic responses towards the immigration debate, a poll by First Focus actually showed strong support for the DREAM Act throughout the country. The organization’s president, Bruce Lesley, has stated that, “the future success of our country lies in our ability to cultivate an educated work force capable of competing in the global economy. We cannot afford to continue losing the talent of so many students who have already been educated in American schools.” Since the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyer v. Doe, all children in the United States, regardless of status, have been guaranteed a K-12 public education. As thousands of talented undocumented students graduate from high school each year, the U.S. stands to lose not only possible members of an educated and competitive work force, but also any financial return on the twelve-year investment the government already will have expended on these students’ education.

The Immigration Debate in 2010

This year, the U.S. is entrenched in a global economic crisis, American soldiers continue to fight wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the country has been overwhelmed by the largest offshore oil spill in its history. Meanwhile, Congress has reached its lowest approval rating since 1973, and Barack Obama has taken a beating in repeated polls. It thus seems logical that as the American people find little consolation in their government, outcomes such as nativism, hate crimes, and scapegoatism emerge.

The United States has a history of xenophobic reactions to a variety of social issues during times of economic recession. Throughout the country’s history, laws have been enacted to restrict unwanted groups of immigrants during tough times, barring everyone from Eastern Europeans to Chinese and Africans, to today’s Latin Americans from immigrating to the U.S. The National Immigration Forum report, “Cycles of Nativism in U.S. History,” describes the makeup of periods most susceptible to xenophobic scapegoatism:

…fear and loathing of foreigners reach such levels when the nation’s problems become so intractable that some people seek scapegoats. Typically, these periods feature a political or economic crisis, combined with a loss of faith in American institutions and a sense that the national community is gravely fractured. Hence a yearning for social homogeneity that needs an internal enemy to sustain itself: the ‘alien’.

Thus the immigration debate starts off as a question of nameless, if not menacing, “illegals,” and any attempts at humane reform are decried as an amnesty. These trends, as many have noted, are not new. President Obama, in his July 1st speech, cited the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, stating that “each new wave of immigrants have generated fear and resentment towards newcomers, particularly in times of economic upheaval.” With the immigration debate raging throughout the country, FBI reports stated that hate crimes against Latinos rose 35% from 2003 to 2006. More recently, according to the FBI yearly report there were over 7,000 hate crimes in the U.S. in 2008, 51.3% of which were racially based. The Southern Poverty Law Center does not attribute this rise in crime to coincidence, but rather declares that increased hate violence is a direct consequence of the straitened terms of the immigration debate.

The federal government’s inability to act with determination on immigration reform has caused many states to lash out in frustration. Arizona’s controversial immigration bill, SB 1070, has divided the nation and pitted the federal government against states. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton has since stalled much of the bill, which went into effect July 29th, after she blocked key elements from being implemented pending constitutional review. The debate has united people to agree that some immigration reform must be seriously and quickly undertaken. However, with the November midterm elections just around the corner, no one seems ready to tackle comprehensive immigration reform measure until their Congressional seat is guaranteed. Bills such as the DREAM Act and the AgJobs bill—a piece of legislation designed to provide immigrant farmers with a pathway to citizenship—show great promise, but questions remain for prudent legislators over whether it is best to pursue a piecemeal strategy, or to stick with going after comprehensive reform. At a recent Brookings Institute conference entitled “Reimagining U.S. Immigration Policy,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Juan Osuna claimed that if the immigration debate continues to drag on while little action is taken, Congress will face pressure to look at a more modest measure to act upon. The Obama administration, however, “doesn’t have a position on this approach yet.” The current debate will greatly affect the future of the DREAM Act, and the hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance in the meantime.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform at Large

Although President Obama’s efforts to pass controversial but necessary health care reform have been commendable, many fear that his actions will endanger the possibility of tackling other large social policy issues. With both midterm and presidential elections looming, Obama does not have much time to act. Moreover, with bills like Arizona’s SB1070 cropping up in other states, the need to pass positive and comprehensive immigration reform becomes increasingly imperative. Lexington, a blogger for The Economist, insists that Obama is mistaken in blaming Republicans and pursuing judicial relief to vacate Arizona’s law. While Lexington makes no attempt to defend Arizona’s bill, he quotes a pro-reform lobbyist as saying that “suing Arizona will baffle and anger the 60% of Americans who say they support [SB 1070].” Furthermore, with elections approaching, the timeline on immigration reform tightens. Lexington states that Obama “should be bending every sinew to preserve relations with the small band of senior Republicans who support the cause and whose co-operation will be no less essential in 2011.”

Unfortunately, comprehensive immigration reform, as laid out by President Obama, has what seems to be a major flaw in the proposed reform. Obama has stated that undocumented residents will be required to “get to the back of the line” after fulfilling the other prerequisites for citizenship. After receiving a request for clarification from the press, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Osuna stated that the details for this process are simply not dealt with in the blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. Immigrants may be required to return to their home country while waiting for legal status or may be allowed to maintain temporary status while living in the U.S for a period of time.

It seems difficult to believe that undocumented residents would willingly come forward in an attempt to gain citizenship if part of the process includes returning to their country of origin, as it disrupts their lives, their jobs, and the lives of their children. If this process is what “going to the back of the line” entails, it seems little different from deportation, as gaining legal residence will sometimes take years and is an incredibly convoluted process.

While Obama has noted that our system of legal immigration is extremely flawed, and needs to be amended, it seems quixotic to be proposing comprehensive immigration reform to an already dubious Congress without properly examining every aspect of the reform package, and whether its passage is at all feasible.

The Promise of the DREAM

The DREAM Act has been introduced to Congress multiple times; in 2001, 2007 and the current version in 2009. The current version was introduced to the Senate by Sen. Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Lugar (R-IN), and in the House by Reps. Berman (D-CA), Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Roybal-Allard (D-CA). Currently, it carries 40 cosponsors in the Senate and 126 in the House of Representatives, and has attracted considerable bipartisan support. According to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, the bill would make 726,000 young people eligible for conditional status (pending two years in college/military service and six of good behavior), 114,000 for permanent legal status (pending six years of good behavior), and 934,000 for possible conditional status (pending high school graduation or completion of GED, two years in college/military service and six of good behavior). As this bill stalls in Congress, about 65,000 students graduate high school each year with limited prospects of either pursuing a secondary education or obtaining a job.

Although anxiety over the immigration debate increases, the DREAM Act still maintains overwhelming popularity. The latest poll by First Focus states that 70% of the American public supports the DREAM Act. Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research, has noted that public polling figures on the DREAM Act depend on how you approach the issue. For example, if pollsters focus on individual stories, pro-Dream sentiment rises. However, according to Lake, the act brings forth competing values: many feel that children should not be punished for the “sins of the father,” while others worry that during tough economic times, undocumented students will benefit from scarce financial aid at the expense of legal residents.

The Need to Act

With midterm elections just around the corner, and with Congress having just a few more months to prove their abilities to an already skeptical American public, it is time to act on the points of immigration reform that already marshal bipartisan support and a high public approval rating. An overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of the DREAM Act, though this number dwindles when the question of allowing states to determine in-state tuition eligibility appears on the poll. Many supporters of the Act emphasize the U.S.’ irresponsibility in limiting the opportunities of such talented students to contribute to American society. The U.S. has much to gain from the talent of these young people. Darrell West states in his book Brain Gain that “we need to reconceptualize immigration as a brain gain and competitiveness enhancer for the United States” and “the inability of Congress to address these concerns have left a status quo that satisfies virtually no one.” As opposed to a brain drain, a brain gain denotes the influx of professionals in the country. Immigrant students illustrate a reserved wealth that has not been tapped into, due to their current inability to pursue higher education.

DREAMers themselves, students who are undocumented and who would be given an opportunity through the DREAM Act, emphasize their potential contributions to American society. Felipe Matos, an undocumented student from Miami Day College who participated in the Trail of DREAMs—a trek undertaken by four undocumented students from Miami to Washington DC— stated in a telephonic press conference that he and other students in similar positions regret that they “cannot contribute to the only place [they] know.” Following commendable acts of non-violent civil disobedience, many undocumented activists now face arrest and/or deportation. Sit-ins in Arizona and in congressional offices, freeway blockings in California, staged pseudo-graduations, hunger strikes, and pedestrian treks across the country have all been used by students to both raise awareness of their current plight and to attempt to build support for the DREAM Act in Congress.

Many speculate that the DREAM Act would be more likely to pass if it was attached to the popular AgJobs Bill. An American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ policy brief stated in 2007 that “chances of [the DREAM Act’s] passage as a standalone bill in the current Congress are not strong; however, if it is attached to a larger, ‘must pass’ piece of legislation, its chances of passing are much greater.” In fact, Sen. Durbin proposed the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill back in 2007, stressing the potential benefits that it could offer regarding military recruitment. The possibility of joining the two most promising and pressing pieces of immigration reform significantly raises the likelihood of its success, but it is still possible that this action could jeopardize comprehensive immigration reform.

The AgJobs bill, or HR2414/S1038, would provide a “blue card,” or temporary legal status, to undocumented farm workers and in some cases to their families after specific requirements are met. After a certain period of time, workers would become eligible to apply for permanent legal status. The bill holds strong support both from workers’ rights groups throughout the country and from the agricultural industry itself. According to Reform Immigration for America, 75% of the American agricultural work force was born outside of the United States and many of them remain undocumented. The agricultural sector states that these jobs would first be offered to legal nationals, but it claims that Americans aren’t willing to fill them.

The National Latino Congreso and other pro-reform organizations are seeking what they say is a “down payment” on immigration reform, hoping that Congress will pass both the DREAM Act and the AgJobs bill this year as a promise on delivering future comprehensive reform. The DREAM Act has been attaining strong support from post-secondary education communities, specifically from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. All told, they brought together over 25 higher education organizations to push the act through Congress prior to the August recess. Unfortunately, many in Congress are hesitant to act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, although a supporter of the act, stated that he will not move it through the Senate unless he can get 60 votes. Yet on July 28th, he told reporters that if Congress cannot receive strong enough support for a comprehensive immigration reform package this fall, he would “take a real strong look at the DREAM Act” as a standalone in 2010. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said that the Hispanic Caucus itself does not want to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in a piece-meal manner, but instead pass it as one complete and unified package.

However tempting or logical this holistic approach might be, the government is losing a precious resource as more promising students pass through the public education system with limited possibility of being permitted to contribute their skills to the U.S. economy. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, states, “…I think about how my tax dollars have helped enable these students to go through the public education system… I’d like a return on my investment, if nothing else.” More important, though, are the lives of the tens of thousands of students who would be released from immigration limbo by the DREAM Act. As of now, their prospects of getting the means to do this are anything but certain.

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This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Julia Nissen
Posted 03 Aug 2010
Word Count: 2700


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