Every year, thousands of undocumented children graduate from high school in the U.S., into the abyss of social security number-less existence, no reliable path to higher education, and a life of exclusion and low-paying, off-the-books jobs. As one former such child who benefited from a fortuitously-timed amnesty in 1986 that made my future bright, I call on the Obama Administration to make passage of the DREAM Act a high-level priority in its first year.
At the press conference after Governor Richardson’s announcement as Commerce Secretary, a Latino reporter asked about whether the governor’s appointment was a “consolation prize” to a Latino community that, despite growing numbers and clout, feels underrepresented in governance. The question points to only half the story.
While it’s true that high-level appointments and a seat at the table of government are key to this important constituency, it’s the policies that affect the many – not the few – that we need to focus on. We need a clear signal from the Obama Administration that it grasps the human tragedy that our current immigration policy represents. The broad and diverse U.S. Latino community is fairly united on one issue: we need to treat immigrants with dignity. In no way could the Obama Administration send a louder signal that it intends to do that than by passing the DREAM Act.
For those that missed the defeat of this legislation last fall, and the limited debate around it, its aim is simple: give legal status to minors who have lived in the United States for more than five years and who arrived in the U.S. prior to age 16. In other words, American kids by upbringing, if not in legal terms (by no choice of their own). For all the bluster and misinformation around “illegal” immigration, when this issue is broken down, it’s a no-brainer. We can keep arguing about fences and migrant workers if that’s what we want to spend our time on, but can we really continue to justify a life of fear and illegality for children who had no hand in the decision their parents made for them and who are, for all intents and purposes, already Americans?
The benefit of passing the DREAM Act extends beyond the obvious human rights issue. It also makes financial sense for the United States. Children who have been raised here are assimilated, speak fluent English, and have been educated in our school systems. By continuing to deny them legal residency and a path to citizenship, we cut off a significant population that is ready and willing to step up and pay taxes, go to college, and enroll in the military. According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 360,000 young people ages 18 to 24 would be immediately eligible for legal status under the DREAM Act, and an additional 715,000 5 to 17-year-olds would age into the program over the next 13 years.
It is eminently more feasible to train and educate assimilated Americans for positions we currently leave open to foreign nationals. It’s less expensive. Additionally, with the educational requirements of the DREAM Act, we guarantee that children who have called the U.S. home for most of their formative years get an education and become productive instead of a part of the shadow economy of undereducation and underemployment. Since they’ve grown up here, they are unlikely to depart for their countries of origin. They’re not going anywhere. I shudder to think we have the stomach to deport MTV-watching, iPod-carrying, America’s Next Top-model-emulating innocent teens whose parents brought them into a bad situation back to home countries most of them barely remember. So since they’re not leaving, the only thing that makes sense is to embrace them. They will repay us with the hard work and pride that most aspiring Americans do.
There will be many other arguments yet to be played out in the immigration debate, and reasonable people can disagree on them – fence or no fence, amnesty or mass deportations, work visas or path to citizenship. But in an immigration climate fraught with controversy, there is one issue that is simple and can signal the compassion and leadership we hope we elected in November.
President-Elect Obama, make the DREAM Act a priority.
This piece was written late in 2008. Sadly, we’re still not there yet.