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Conservative Alternatives to the DREAM Act: New and Hardly Improved

The right seems to be motivated by restrictionist ideology rather than a consideration of common sense.

 In this election season, discussions of immigration reform have been light on serious policy talk and heavy on partisan posturing. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama reiterated his commitment to getting immigration reform done, using strikingly  similar language to what he said in past addresses. For their part, Republican presidential hopefuls have been committed to spending more money at the border and rejecting any comprehensive immigration reforms. But when the right has presented fresh ideas on immigration, they seem to be motivated by restrictionist ideology rather than a consideration of common sense.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, ruffled feathers recently with his strange and inhumane idea that out-of-status immigrants " self-deport" back to their home countries; fellow frontrunner Gingrich quickly attacked this unrealistic policy. But Romney's most alienating statement on immigration so far was his stunning  promise to Iowa caucus audiences that he would veto the DREAM Act.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, aka the DREAM Act, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children, provided that they graduate from high school and attend college for two years or serve in the military. This legislation has been around for a little over ten years; in December 2010, the DREAM Act passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

Opponents to the bill frequently claimed that DREAM Act eligible immigrants, once legalized, would be able to petition on behalf of their undocumented parents, resulting in massive " chain migration." It is true that naturalized citizens can petition for residence for their parents; but under the Act, applicants must wait a minimum of thirteen years before even becoming eligible for citizenship. Even then, the fact is that it's very difficult for relatives already living illegally in the US to become permanent residents through this process. The DREAM Act is hardly the open door to citizenship that opponents claim it to be.

The most troubling line of reasoning against the DREAM Act is based on the idea that undocumented youth and young people are somehow the "other" and that this policy only benefits a special interest group. With legal status, conservative opponents say, these individuals will steal jobs and take spots in colleges that should otherwise be reserved for real Americans. But DREAM Act beneficiaries have grown up in America, speaking English and attending our public schools; despite their origins, these young folks are hardly "aliens."

And providing a path to legal status for these residents will empower them to give back to our economy and society. According to a new UCLA study, the DREAM Act could yield a whopping $3.6 trillion  in economic output over the next forty years; with legal status and the incentive to continue their education, immigrants can get better jobs and contribute much more to our economy. The DREAM Act would enable immigrant youth to start businesses, pay income taxes, and buy more consumer goods; clearly these positive outcomes won't just pay off for special interest groups.

Thanks in part to the efforts of  immigration advocates and youth activists, the 2010 defeat of the DREAM Act was hardly the end. During this election cycle, Republican candidates and conservative voices on immigration have been speaking out against the current iteration of the bill, and suggesting radical ways to improve it.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Robert Gittelson of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposes a "conservative alternative to the DREAM Act." To avoid the possibility of a "back-door amnesty" to undocumented parents of eligible children, Gittelson suggests changing the "Democratic version of the DREAM Act" so that beneficiaries would only be allowed to stay in the country as non-immigrants or guest workers. In this way, there is no way for newly legalized immigrants to sponsor anyone for residence. In the beginning of the piece, Gittelson agrees that children of immigrants deserve compassion. Then why limit their options just to appease chain migration alarmists? The fact that DREAM Act beneficiaries may someday be able to sponsor their parents in the future does not warrant consigning them to an inappropriate immigration status today.