May, the deadline by which advocates had hoped comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be introduced in Congress, has come and gone. It is time to accept that no matter how badly the nation needs this reform, Washington does not have the political will to act on such a divisive issue. So it is time to change tactics. Leaders of the immigration reform movement, who so far have insisted on pushing for an omnibus package of bills, should heed the young people in their ranks calling for a stand-alone effort to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors legislation, or the DREAM Act.
The bill would give undocumented young people the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency (which can lead to legal permanent residency and then citizenship) if they graduate from U.S. high schools, have been in the country continuously at least five years before the legislation's enactment, and meet certain post-secondary educational or military service requirements. This is the only aspect of immigration reform — other than those related to enforcement — with any steam behind it. Backers of the bill — known among themselves as "Dreamers" — have been fasting and marching and demonstrating for months. Some have publicly outed themselves as undocumented. They have put faces and names to the 65,000 students who graduate each year from high school into permanent limbo, unable either to work legally or, often, go to college.
Until now, reform advocates have been reluctant to separate the DREAM Act from the broader immigration reform package, for fear they were removing the most politically palatable piece. But that may be a miscalculation. The plight of undocumented students has not inspired a sense of urgency for reform in the political mainstream even though the students are in many cases both deserving and blameless.
Most of those who would be affected by the legislation were brought to the United States by their parents. Many remember no other home and, like their peers, are eager to pursue the American Dream. Such is the case of Eric Balderas, the 19-year-old Harvard University student whose status became the subject of national attention when federal authorities learned he is undocumented. Balderas was brought to the country at age 4 and grew up thinking he was a U.S. citizen. Not until his mother refused to let him get a driver's license did he learn the truth. Still, he became valedictorian at his Texas high school and is now studying molecular and cellular biology. His deportation has been indefinitely deferred, but in our view, he shouldn't be deported at all.
Opponents of the DREAM Act say the parents of such students are to blame. Maybe. But the fact remains that the children did not trap themselves. And permitting them to go to college is a smart investment — students like Balderas will become successful professionals and gainfully employed taxpayers. Sacrificing the future of talented students does not serve the greater good; it is time to pass the DREAM Act.