Conservative Alternatives to the DREAM Act: New and Hardly Improved

 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.

Someone who has gone to American high school and speaks English should absolutely not be classified as a guest worker. The endemic problems of our guest worker programs are well documented; in short, these programs leave immigrant workers open to labor exploitation and degrade labor standards that all workers rely on. We should not expand this system without reform. Further, classifying DREAM Act beneficiaries as "non-immigrants" obviously goes against the spirit of the program. The non-immigrant program is for international visitors coming to the U.S. temporarily, a large category that includes fashion models and au pairs, but should not include DREAM Act beneficiaries. There is nothing temporary about migrating to the U.S. as a teenager, learning English, and marrying a U.S. citizen.

Gittelson also suggests lowering the qualifying age for the bill from 35 years old as a way to trim the potential pool of candidates. (According to a recent study, only 825,000 individuals would realistically be eligible for legalization under the bill.) If we agree that someone brought to the U.S. as a minor who has gotten an education and stayed out of trouble should be allowed to legalize, then lowering the age limit to exclude a 35 year old who meets these requirements seems arbitrary.

The worst "amendment" to the DREAM Act by far would allow undocumented youth to get on the path to citizenship only through military service. Gittelson's op-ed also endorses this plan, while Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have come out in support of the bill. The idea that we only offer citizenship to undocumented students willing to serve and potentially sacrifice their lives in the military but not those who want to further their education is ridiculous, and some say racist. To undocumented youth, the message is clear: America doesn't want you to be an educated citizen, but will let you sacrifice your life to be a veteran citizen.

I understand the need to tweak the DREAM Act and improve its chances, but this is not the right way to do it. Would-be lawmakers and their advisers should come up with a solution to ensure the DREAM Act only covers intended beneficiaries without resorting to needless restrictions. At the end of the day, it's hard to believe the existing policy is the problem, and easier to think that politics as usual has gotten in the way of a successful DREAM Act.

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