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PASS THE DREAM ACT: A Good Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste

A good mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially the mind of a motivated young person. And, I’m not talking about wasting a brain to drugs or crime. Instead, I’m talking about wasting the minds of tens of thousands of young people in the U.S. every year who have grown up here and are anxious to contribute to America, but who cannot go to college, get jobs, drive cars, or join the military simply because they lack papers to be here lawfully through no fault of their own. Most came when they were small children and were not capable of making decisions on their own. In my law practice, I have met young people who did not even know they were in the U.S. illegally. Until they went to sign up for drivers training, applied for a pilot or professional license, or tried to fill out the FAFSA form for college financial aid, these kids always thought they were Americans. Only then did their parents reveal the family secret about their undocumented status. To say the students, their mentors or teachers were shocked would be an understatement. Why continue to punish them for their parents’ decisions when they are motivated to succeed and contribute to our country?

What is better for the United States? To deport these ambitious young people to countries they have never known or no longer remember? Let them languish with nothing to do? Or let them settle for a life of menial labor where they can be taken advantage of? We should be encouraging them to reach for the stars, and enrich our nation with their abilities and desire to lead. If they want to find the cure for cancer or improve the environment or become teachers, we should encourage them to do so. Why does the anti-immigrant crowd not want every child in America to succeed as we would want for our own children and our neighbors’ children? If you feel as I do, please contact your Senator and Representative in Congress THIS WEEK and ask him or her to support the DREAM Act.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is predicted to file for cloture in the coming week with anticipated action on the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. Building upon a decade of bipartisan support for the DREAM Act, it would be a fantastic accomplishment if the lame duck Congress enacted this bill and did what is right, moral, humane, and sensible, not to mention good for our country. Whether the bill gets acted upon this week or next term, the U.S. Congress really needs to do something quickly for this large group of young people. Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are roughly two million people or 65,000 graduating seniors every year who currently lack post-high school options. There are no longer any justifiable excuses not to pass the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act would put young people on the path to green cards and U.S. citizenship if they complete high school and are willing to go to college or join the U.S. military. Eligible students, who graduate from a U.S. high school, will become conditional lawful permanent residents. They will then be required to earn citizenship by pursuing higher education or military service over a six-year period. The DREAM Act is supported by the Defense Department so that it can expand its recruiting pool.

Just who are the Dreamers? They are valedictorians, star athletes, artists, would-be doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers or the founders of the next big thing or invention. There are many who want to serve their country or invent the cure for cancer. They are college band drum majors, computer scientists, youth leaders and activists. The diverse range of Dreamers are highlighted by Senator Dick Durban (D-ILL), who originally introduced the Dream Act. They are very, very brave young people who have stepped forward at great personal risk and risk to their families to highlight not just their own individual plights, but that of other students like them. Dreamers have organized here in Washington and across the country, and have marched on Washington, D.C. They have held sit-ins and gone on hunger strikes. Some are facing imminent removal. They have become a formidable advocacy group inspiring many young people to speak out and to become leaders.

A November 28, 2010 Los Angeles Times article, Students Want the Dream Act to Become A Reality, highlights the work of Professor William Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, and author of We Are Americans, who specializes in education and immigration. According to the article, Professor Perez studied a group of 200 undocumented students primarily in California. He followed their progress from high school through college. Professor Perez found that 78%of these students held some sort of leadership position, from editor of the yearbook to captain of a sports team. Twenty-nine percent had a role in student government. Twelve percent were student body presidents.

“‘It wasn’t what I was expecting to find. We always hear that poverty and legal struggles are predictors of academic failure,’ Perez said. ‘I was scratching my head. I double-checked and triple-checked my numbers. But the more I presented my research, the more I came to believe this is the way the students expressed their American self-identity. People were telling them, ‘You don’t belong. You can’t contribute.’ This was their way of refuting that.'”

DREAM Act supporters include most major educational institutions and teacher organizations including the National Education Association, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, the National Parent Teacher Association, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the American Federation of Teachers, and the College Board, to name a few.

Why do people oppose these students becoming legal? Anti-immigrant activists presented a list of opposition points to Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) mischaracterizing the bill as “amnesty” and as a bill that would “give college preference to illegals over citizens.” However, that document contains a number of myths dispelled by the Immigration Policy Center. A little fact checking shows the main arguments against the DREAM Act are not supported by data or reality.

Passing the DREAM Act, while having major political consequences to all parties, would actually benefit the U.S. economy. Allowing Dreamers to become legal and attend college or join the military means they will have higher earning capabilities and thus will pay more in taxes in the long term. Immigrants with legal status earn more money and invest more of their own funds in education, business, taxes and home ownership. People with higher incomes have better health and use fewer government resources. In the case of particularly talented students, the DREAM Act prevents a brain drain.

Ten states that have allowed DREAM Act students to attend college at in-state tuition rates have not suffered or caused in-state resident students to lose seats. According to the Immigration Policy Center, “four of these states are among the top 10 states that have the most potential DREAM Act beneficiaries. The laws in these 10 states require undocumented students to: 1) attend a school in the state for a certain number of years; 2) graduate from high school in the state; and 3) sign an affidavit stating that they will apply to legalize their status as soon as they are eligible to do so. These laws are in compliance with federal law. Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) prohibits states from providing any higher education benefit based on residency to undocumented immigrants unless they provide the same benefit to U.S. citizens in the same circumstances. Therefore, the 10 states also provide that U.S. citizens or LPRs [green card holders] who meet these requirements, but who no longer live in the state, are able to qualify for the in-state tuition rates as well.”

I’ll be writing more on state tuition issues soon. In the meantime, the Immigration Policy Center has an excellent article, “Dispelling DREAM Act Myths” point by point. The bottom line is that DREAM Act in one variation or another has been around for a decade with supporters on both sides of the aisle. Of course, the devil is in the details. Let’s just get it done and then everyone can take credit for it. Let’s not waste the abilities of 65,000 high school graduates a year.