Pass the DREAM Act for a Healthy Economy


Passing the DREAM Act is not only the right thing to do, but in these trying economic times it is also the sensible thing to do.

I am such a passionate advocate for the DREAM Act that I often forget there are people in this world that don't know what the DREAM Act is.  According to Wikipedia:

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (also called "The DREAM Act") [is] a piece of proposed federal legislation in the United States that would provide certain immigrant students who graduate from a [U.S. high school], are of good moral character, arrived in the US as children, and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.
Wikipedia (23 March 2009)

The National Immigration Law Center also has a basic information sheet (pdf) that I print out and give to people who are not familiar with the DREAM Act.  I don't go into any migration-related meeting without it.  In 2007, I pushed hard for the DREAM Act when it was introduced  in the U.S. Senate, and I was crushed when it failed.  Migrant youth cannot wait any longer.  The time to pass the DREAM Act is now. 

Though I will be making a practical economic argument in this post, it's important to state that I am generally not a practical writer.  I believe the universe is on the side of justice. I am an idealist, not a realist.  Statistics don't inspire people to make change, heart does.  Even if the DREAM Act isn't passed during these trying economic times, unauthorized migrant youth will eventually see justice.  I truly believe this.  That doesn't mean I can be complacent.  I still have to participate in justice.  It's just a matter of having faith that others will participate in justice, too.

That is why the moral argument for the DREAM Act is so much more important than the practical one.  I'm going to show you, definitively, why it makes economic sense to pass the DREAM Act, now.  If the DREAM Act doesn't pass, though, and the economy recovers, the economic argument will be relegated to the past.  The moral argument, however, will stand the test of time.  If the DREAM Act doesn't pass, now, it is the moral argument that will eventually win the day.  This is why I will begin with the moral argument.

The Moral Argument: The Essence Of What It Means To Make This World A Better Place

If you would have told me years ago that I would become a passionate advocate for the DREAM Act, I wouldn't have believed you.  Over the last few years, I've been completely transformed by "DREAMers," the term we use for unauthorized migrant youth that would benefit from the DREAM Act.  Meeting DREAMers that have courageously spoken out for the DREAM Act and migration policy reform is inspirational beyond anything I can hope to describe. 

To list just a few examples: the DREAMers at, run new media circles around the most prominent and well-funded migrant advocacy organizations, as evidenced by their recent campaining on In Massachusetts, I've learned more about on-the-ground organizing, movement building and making change from the Student Immigrant Movement in a year, than I've learned in a whole lifetime of activism.  I can't name many of the undocumented youth that I've met and worked with, but the few that I can, like Tam Tran, Mario Rodas, Juan Gomez, and Marie Gonzales, inspire me beyond any prominent celebrity or politician that I'll ever meet. 

 The DREAMer struggle has been articulated many times by people far more capable to do so than I am.  Still, I will give it a try.  65,000 unauthorized migrant youth graduate from U.S. high schools every year.  Many were brought to the U.S. before they could remember much else, and most know no other home except for the U.S.  The cruel irony of their situation is made all the more apparent by contrasting it with my story.  I was born in Guatemala and spent most of my life there.  I was given the privilege of U.S. citizenship simply because I was born of U.S. parents.  Meanwhile, DREAMers have lived most of their lives in the U.S., but are denied the privilege of U.S. citizenship because they had the misfortune of being born somewhere else.

If I had to sum up the DREAMer struggle in one sentence it would be this: DREAMers don't even have a right to exist in the only country they know as their home.  DREAMers haven't even gotten to a point where they're fighting against be considered equal humans, they're fighting just to be recognized as humans.  That's a huge part of what inspires me about DREAMers.  If any nation told me I didn't have the right to exist, I would hate it, much less want to live in it.  I've long joked that if I was a DREAMer, I would have started my own version of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement.  The U.S. should be begging for talented youth like this, especially during this time of economic crisis.  Astonishingly, DREAMers don't hate the U.S., they work to better it.  Where I probably would have been tearing the U.S. down, DREAMers instead fight to make the U.S. a better and more just place.  They embody the essence of what it means to do good in this world. 

In summary, the moral argument for passing the DREAM Act is the following: the unauthorized migrant youth that would benefit from the DREAM Act know no other home than the U.S.  They were brought here through no fault of their own.  Though nativists will argue that they should have come here legally, the fact of the matter is that there is currently no way for the beneficiaries of the DREAM Act to gain legal status.  Unauthorized migrant youth shouldn't have to suffer because their parents, like so many migrants before them, chose to seek a better life in the U.S.  Even more telling is that these youth want to contribute to the only country they know as their home.  They want to make the U.S. a better place.  To turn them away, to make them suffer daily from the fear that their lives can end at any moment, is unjust.  If you're still not convinced, I encourage you to read the stories of unauthorized migrant youth that has compiled.  Nativists would have you believe that DREAMers are a mass of "illegals" whose "amnesty" should be opposed at all cost.  This notion is quickly dispelled once you get to know any DREAMer.

The Economic Argument: The Foundation For Future Economic Prosperity

The moral argument for the DREAM Act is simple.  The only people who cannot see it are those who refuse to recognize unauthorized migrants as humans.  That's why any article that humanizes migrants is always quickly filled with vicious nativist hate in the comments section.  The economic argument, on the other hand, is not that simple.  It would be a lie to pretend that the economic argument is simple.  These are difficult times.  Everyone is hurting.  Doing the right thing is always more difficult when people are struggling just to provide for themselves and their families. 

Though there are conflicting economic arguments over the costs and benefits of migration, what I consider to be the consensus is the following:  Migration is good for the U.S. economy overall, but there is compelling evidence that it might hurt vulnerable U.S. citizens and legal migrants in certain cases.  One of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to migration and the U.S. economy, is that they believe in a zero-sum labor market.  In other words, a job taken by a migrant is a job taken away from a U.S. citizen.  That's not the way any market works, but this is especially true of labor markets.  In labor markets someone that is employed is able to consume, invest in their communities, and start new businesses, which in turn creates jobs other people.  To say that "illegals take our jobs" is an outright lie.

A more sophisticated economic argument suggests that migrants depress the wages of U.S. citizens.  This still does not acknowledge migrants who work as productive human beings who themselves create jobs, pay taxes, and consume goods.  If, after factoring in all this, migrants still depress the wages of U.S. citizens, the solution is not to blame migrant themselves.  The solution is to enforce labor laws and strengthen worker rights.  This is true of so much else that migrants are blamed for.  Nativists would have you believe that migrants are at fault for everything from expensive healthcare, to substandard education.  Blaming migrants for economy is just a way to blind people to the real changes that need to be made. 

If you read one thing today on migration and the U.S. economy, read Cristina Jimenez's article in The American Prospect.  It presents one of the clearest arguments for migration reform as a way to strengthen the U.S. economy.  Following is the meat of her argument:

Consigning undocumented workers to a precarious existence undermines all who aspire to a middle-class standard of living. Employers regularly rely on undocumented workers to perform low-paying, unregulated jobs and to put downward pressure on all wages in certain industries. Immigrants without legal status accept these jobs because they lack power and workplace rights; non-immigrants must accept the same diminished wages and degraded conditions or risk exclusion from many employment opportunities.


As long as a cheap, compliant pool of undocumented labor is available, employers have every reason to take advantage of the situation, keeping wages as low as possible. Only when undocumented immigrants have the ability to exercise complete workplace rights will they help exert upward pressure on wages and labor standards that will benefit other workers.
Cristina Jimenez - The American Prospect (12 February 2009)

The Immigration Policy Center has a fact sheet explaining how a path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants would help the U.S. economy in the following four ways (click the link to see the detailed statistics):

  • Legalization increases government revenues by bringing ALL workers into the tax system [...]
  • Workers with legal status earn and spend more [...]
  • "Enforcement-only" policies are expensive and don't work [...]
  • Legalization adds to immigration's economic benefits

I have laid out the broader economic argument for migration reform in order to make my more specific argument for the DREAM Act more effective.  Here I will turn to the National Immigration Law Center and their fact sheet (pdf) on how the DREAM Act would help the economy (again click the link to see the details):

  • Reduced drop out rates [...]
  • Increased income and positive fiscal impact [...]
  • A legal workforce [...]
  • Reward character

As you can see the economic arguments for the DREAM Act are not that different from the economic arguments for comprehensive migration reform.  They express a truism that plays out the world over, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  If the U.S. continues to refuse to recognize the humanity of unauthorized migrants, all U.S. citizens suffer.  These economic arguments, however, have been true for sometime.  In order to make them more relevent to the present situation and more specific to DREAMers, I will turn to the words of the current president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, and his recent speech on education reform:

America will not remain true to its highest ideals, and America's place as a global economic leader will be put at risk...if we don't do a far better job than we've been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.


The source of America's prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know -- education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success.

That's why workers without a four-year degree have borne the brunt of recent layoffs, Latinos most of all. That's why, of the 30 fastest growing occupations in America, half require a Bachelor's degree or more. By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training.

So let there be no doubt: The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.
Barack Obama (10 March 2009)

 What Barack Obama is saying is that an educated citizenry is an essential foundation for longterm prosperity.  If this is true, it does not make any sense to keep DREAMers away from a college education simply because they do not have legal status.  DREAMers want to become U.S. citizens, they want to contribute to the U.S. economy, and tens of thousands of them are being denied that chance. In what world does it make economic sense to turn away people from a college education, and force them to leave the country, after the U.S. has invested in them throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school?

 We all know what nativists are going to say.  They're going to argue that giving an unauthorized migrant a college degree takes college degrees away from U.S. citizens.  Is anyone else getting tired of this nativist zero-sum logic?  One very common misconception in U.S. higher education is that all U.S. colleges are competitive.  That is to say, that there are a limited number of spots in U.S. colleges for students.  That is true of only a small minority of elite schools in the U.S.  The vast majority of state schools and community colleges in the U.S. will take as many qualified students as they can enroll, and doing so only increases the revenues that these schools receive.  I know this from debates about affirmative action.  Learn more about this by reading The Shape of the River, by William G. Bowen et al.

To give a specific example of where admitting unauthorized migrants does not take away from U.S. citizens one need not look further than Massachusetts.  The Student Immigrant Movement has been battling for in-state tuition for unauthorized migrant students in Massachusetts for a long time now.  At first glance it would appear that offering in-state tuition to unauthorized migrant students would take away from Massachusetts residents, but the non-partisan Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation has shown that in-state tuition would actually result in $2.5 million in additional revenue for state schools.  In an earlier post on this I wrote, "taxpayers actually benefit from giving migrant youth in-state tuition, because it would be added revenue that the State wouldn't receive otherwise, and it would be of negligible cost to the State to admit these students".  Read the post I wrote on this to understand the full argument.

Those are the best economic arguments I can muster for the support of the DREAM Act, but it is important to remember that these practical economic arguments should not outweigh the injustices that are being done to unauthorized migrant youth.  There are about a dozen unauthorized migrant youth at the school I attend, Harvard College, some of whom I know, and it is such a waste to see some of the most promising minds in the world struggle to find a way to exist in the only country they know as their home.  I will end with a note to potential allies that might see a reason to oppose the DREAM Act. 

A Note To Potential Allies: Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Military Provision

The media will likely cover any debate over the DREAM Act as a false debate between nativists and migrant advocates.  It's the fake objectivity of journalism that sees the portrayal of two opposite perspectives, regardless of their legitimacy, as balanced and free of bias.  Nativists have shown themselves to be increasingly irrelevant from an electoral standpoint.  As such, the real battle will not be between nativists and migrant advocates, but among migrant advocates themselves.  The most dangerous argument that migrant advocates will advance is that the DREAM Act should not be passed by itself, and that it should part of comprehensive immigration reform. 

For some time, this has been the position of some of the most powerful migrant advocacy organizations in the U.S.  Fortunately, I have faith that this will not be the case this time, but it's important to remain vigilant in case this argument is made.  Certain blocks of politicians have also been known to make this argument.  In my estimation, what killed the DREAM Act in 2007 was not nativism, but politicians who voted against the DREAM Act by arguing that it should be part of comprehensive immigration reform.

We should not be playing politics with unauthorized migrant youth.  Just because the DREAM Act makes comprehensive immigration reform more attractive, does not mean that we should continue to make DREAMers wait for the right to exist in the U.S.  More importantly, though, passing the DREAM Act will lay the foundation for comprehensive immigration reform.  It will draw the lines in U.S. congress as to who is pro-migrant and anti-migrant, and if it is passed, tens of thousands of new advocates will be able to toss aside their fears and push for comprehensive immigration reform. 

There is a second argument pro-migrant allies will advance in opposition to the DREAM Act.  I actually believe that this argument is worth addressing as I myself have problems this portion of the DREAM Act.  The only two paths for unauthorized migrant youth to obtain legal status through the DREAM Act is either through college, or the military.  This is part of an extremely dangerous trend in the battle over comprehensive migration reform in which the carrot of legalization is offered along with the stick of the increased militarization of the U.S.  XP expresses this argument better than I ever could in his post entitled "The Green Card Draft: One Immigrant's Nightmare is Uncle Sam's DREAM."

I believe the amount the U.S. spends on death, rather than life, is unconcionable.  That is without even mentioning the way people of color often get sucked into the military at higher rates than others do.  I have no reason to doubt that if the DREAM Act is passed, more unauthorized migrant youth will obtain legal status through the military than through higher education.  This raises huge ethical dillemas for me because I do not believe joining the military helps those who join, nor does it help the world.  Most unauthorized migrant youth that I have spoken with also have ethical dillema's with this. 

The reason I continue to support the DREAM Act, however, is that I have not found one unauthorized migrant youth that opposes the DREAM Act, simply on the basis of this military provision.  For me to argue that the DREAM Act should be opposed simply because of the military provision, is to deny DREAMers their agency.  The fact of the matter is that unauthorized migrants are suffering and at this point, after so many years of fighting, we all need a victory.  One of the major problems with migrant advocacy is that the people that make the high level decisions about what and what not to support are generally not affected by those decisions.  It is only from a position of privilege that I believe you can argue that the DREAM Act should be opposed.

The day after the DREAM Act is passed, however, I will work along side many others to get the military provision of the DREAM Act overturned, and put other provisions, like a community service provision, in its place.

Conclusion: Laying The Groundwork for Justice

I imagine that most people will probably not get through this long post.  I'm writing this more for me than anyone else, to lay out comprehensively, why I believe the DREAM Act should be passed, now.  This will allow me, and I hope others, to lay the groundwork for the hard work ahead of us.

It is time for DREAMers to see the justice they deserve.  The time to pass the DREAM Act is now.

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