Updated June 24, 2011
We can no longer afford the failed enforcement-only approach to immigration. Our current laws break up families, and we end up spending millions on a system that clearly isn’t working. Among reforms that would provide a fresh start and a sound, practical, humane solution is the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act would open up avenues to education, residency, and potential citizenship for undocumented youths. If they are able to complete either education requirements or military service, and if they live and work in this country legally, there is greater potential for them to make vital contributions that help advance the American dream for them and for us all.
Undocumented youths should not be punished for their parents’ choices. Undocumented youths are caught in a constant Catch-22. They were brought to this country to realize the American dream, or have come to rely on its promise, but achieving it is all but impossible due to someone else’s choice that was out of their hands. The end of high school is the end of the line for many – as many as 65,000 graduating seniors each year. Branded as “illegal,” they must retreat further into the shadows or return to a country of which they know very little, if anything – leaving behind a life that would be perfectly law-abiding and productive but for their undocumented status.
“Just send them back” is an impossible plan, especially when you consider the financial potential of the DREAM Act. Deportation is already a costly process, estimated at $12,500 to $23,000 per person. If there really are twelve million undocumented immigrants living the US, mass deportation would cost somewhere between $150 and $276 billion dollars. In contrast, the DREAM Act could save us money, and its beneficiaries could generate as much as $1.4 to $3.6 trillion in personal earnings.
The DREAM Act is not a fast track to citizenship. The rigors of the citizenship process remain for those who choose to pursue citizenship following legal permanent residency. DREAM students are subject to a period of conditional nonimmigrant status, which lasts up to six years. They must meet several requirements during that time to be adjusted to legal permanent residency. Only after they become legal permanent residents can they make the choice to pursue citizenship. If they don’t choose citizenship, they remain ineligible for benefits such as social services and family immigration.
Supporting higher education that puts undocumented youths on the path to legal permanent residency benefits not only them but also the communities in which they live. Undocumented youths achieve great things, just like their documented counterparts. There is no distinction among students who participate in athletics, excel academically, and volunteer to serve their communities. Undocumented status should not on its own determine who gets to earn a higher education, or have a productive life beyond college. Enabling legal permanent residency, and potential citizenship, for these hardworking, committed youth would significantly benefit states, as they would reap even greater rewards from a stronger, better educated workforce. They would likely see a drop in the need for social services and a surge in their economies.
The DREAM Act will strengthen the military. Under the DREAM Act, one of the ways to earn legal permanent residency is to serve in the United States military for at least two years. This provision recognizes a long history of immigrants serving in the military and giving back to their adopted country. They are critical to our country being able to maintain its all volunteer force, which has been under unprecedented strains as we fight two wars. Their vital contribution has been recognized by Pentagon and military leaders alike, including outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, among others.
Keep working on comprehensive immigration reform but address the DREAM Act now. Some have argued that the DREAM Act should not be considered until the United States addresses comprehensive immigration reform. Passing such legislation continues to be an arduous process, with many fundamental issues yet to be resolved. We will not lose sight of this goal; nobody should. But the DREAM Act is achievable now and would be an important step forward.
The DREAM Act would allow access to post-secondary educational opportunities for the many undocumented youths who currently face difficult obstacles on the road to higher education. It applies to persons 35 or younger who arrived in the US at age 15 or younger and who have been here for at least five years upon the date of enactment. Once they have a high school diploma, GED, or have been accepted to college, these individuals would be able to apply for conditional nonimmigrant status, which lasts up to six years. To be adjusted to legal permanent residency, they will need to demonstrate good moral character and prove completion of a college degree, two years toward a bachelor’s or other higher degree, or two years of military service. Citizenship is available after that only as a choice to apply for naturalization. The DREAM Act also includes a provision that would give states the option (without guarantee) to offer in-state tuition to undocumented youths.
The DREAM Act has been introduced in the 112th Congress as a stand-alone bill (H.R. 1842/S. 952) and as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (S. 1258). During the 111th Congress, it passed the House, and garnered majority support in the Senate, but failed to survive a Republican-led filibuster.
Contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that all young people deserve a chance at higher education and the American dream. Let them know that the DREAM Act is a sound, practical, humane solution for undocumented youths that is consistent with comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). Urge them to support the DREAM Act in the 112th Congress. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining how the DREAM act will benefit your community and our country just as much as it will benefit undocumented youths.
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