Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he will introduce the so-called DREAM Act, a key component of immigration reform, as an amendment to a defense authorization bill as early as Tuesday. Doing so will throw down a gauntlet. Democrats and Republicans alike will have to choose between what is right for the nation and what might appease its angriest elements.
Under the act, undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools and have been in the country continuously for at least five years would be eligible for a six-year conditional path to citizenship if they meet certain college requirements or serve two years in the military. Most of those who would be covered were brought to the United States as young children; many remember no other home. Sometimes they learn the truth about their immigration status only when they apply to college or try to get a driver's license.
The DREAM Act should not be controversial; it does not grant "amnesty" or reward people who broke immigration laws. Rather, it acknowledges that thousands of promising young people are not to blame for the misdeeds of their parents. Furthermore, its passage is clearly in the economic interest of the country. All children in the U.S. are entitled to a public K-12 education (worth roughly $113,568 per child in California), and given this significant investment, it makes little fiscal sense to foreclose further opportunity for young illegal immigrants just when they are poised to repay the society that nurtured them.
Of all the nation's immigrants, these students and military veterans should be welcomed into the community of citizenship. Raised in the U.S., educated in U.S. schools and acculturated to U.S. society, they have deep roots here and no allegiance elsewhere. And it is to everyone's advantage that they become gainfully employed future taxpayers instead of struggling laborers. Workers with a bachelor's degree far out-earn those without one, garnering an average of $1 million more in income over their working lifetime, according to the U.S. Census, and paying a heftier share of taxes.
Unfortunately, the DREAM Act will not rise or fall on its merits. In prior years, at least 10 Republican senators — five of whom are still in office — could be counted as supporters. Nowadays, adopting a hard line on immigration serves them well with the party's base, and anxious Democrats are clearly moving the legislation to court Latino voters. Politics aside, this dream should not be deferred.