Published on:

DREAM Act Failure: Nightmare or Opportunity?

The Senate’s failure to enact the DREAM Act was a blow to the young people who would have qualified and to their many supporters. The DREAM Act would have put young people living in the U.S. without status who came to the U.S. at an early age with their parents on a long 13-year path to legal status and citizenship if they commit to going to college or join the military. Other DREAM Act supporters included their families, employers looking for more college graduates and leaders, the military anxious to expand the pool of volunteer recruits, educators of all types at all levels of education, ethnic and immigrants rights groups, and many, many everyday Americans who are the relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow classmates, teachers, and service providers to DREAM youth.

Republican Senators Richard Lugar (IN), Robert Bennett (UT) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) very courageously voted in favor of the Dream Act last week. However, Democratic Senators Baucus (MT); Hagan (NC); Nelson (NE); Pryor (AR); and Tester (MT) all voted against the Dream Act. Senators Joe Manchin (WV), Bunning (KY), Gregg (NH), and Orrin Hatch (UT) (who ironically, was an original sponsor of the DREAM Act when first introduced in 2001) failed to even show up to vote on this important piece of legislation. 60 Senate votes in favor were needed to pass the DREAM Act, but fell just five votes shy of passing. Some Senators who voted against the DREAM Act have since stated they might have voted for it if it wasn’t so broad.

Immigrant and gay rights are at the forefront of civil rights advocacy in the United States right now. Amazingly, the Senate had the guts to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), but it lacked the guts to pass this minor piece of immigration reform legislation that would have benefited the economy and security of the United States. Ironically, both pieces of legislation would have remedied this country’s failure to accommodate people who want to pursue higher education and/or serve in the military because they love and want to give back to this country. Both DADT and DREAM recognize that this country has squandered opportunities to attract the best and brightest in academia and the military by discriminating against gays and immigrants.

By failing to pass the DREAM Act, the Congress has endorsed a policy of letting an estimated 65,000 undocumented high school graduates a year languish in the underground economy, keeping them disenfranchised and unable to pursue their talents, or preventing them from being able to pursue professions that could otherwise have resulted in the cure to cancer, developing the next great new technology, improvements to the environment, or leading great companies or organizations in ways that would benefit all Americans.

So, what happens now? Perhaps the failure of the DREAM Act will result in opportunities. As they say, “if you’re given a lemon, make lemonade.” There could be a silver lining in all of this despite predictions that it is unlikely the next Congress will vote for anything but enforcement-only immigration legislation. There are other approaches to take.

DREAM Act youth, while teary-eyed and devastated by the vote, have vowed to fight on. They are organized, dedicated and mad. This amazing group of very brave young people stepped forward into the public light to reveal their situations at great risk to themselves and their families. They learned the fine arts of advocacy and leadership. They are well organized and quite eloquent, having been praised by even those Senators that voted against the DREAM Act. Several developments have occurred since the vote:

– DREAM Act activists have vowed to fight on and have launched a “We Won’t Forget How you Voted” campaign. Latinos make up the majority of potential DREAM Act applicants, though there are Dreamers from many countries. A growing Latino movement has threatened to withhold their votes from 2012 election candidates who voted against the DREAM Act. The loss of the Latino vote from GOP support could be devastating.
– Immigrants rights groups will push for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill once again before the new Congress, this time focusing on a wider group of remedies that are aimed at combating illegal immigration, but also provide for a broader group of people qualifying for legal status rather than just DREAM Act youth.
-The Obama Administration issued various statements to the press about how disheartened the administration was about the Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act. Statements by Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, Department of Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, President Obama, and others indicated their plans to push the DREAM Act again, as well as an overall CIR bill. The President’s State of the Union speech in January is an opportunity for him to be more passionate and convincing than he was in July if he can explain why it is morally and economically the right thing to do to pass CIR that would benefit everyone in America.

Other reactions to the DREAM Act failure include:
-Calls by immigration coalitions for the Obama Administration to use its executive and administrative authorities to make certain fixes to current immigration laws that do not require a vote by Congress.
Calls for using other strategies such as more use of prosecutorial discretion and development of policy directives that impose justice and fairness in existing laws.