The DREAM Act: Dream To Live Out Loud

By December 8, 2010The WIN Column

The DREAM Act: Dream To Live Out LoudEvery year in the United States, some 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school. But they are then stuck – unable to attend college, join the military, get a legitimate job, or otherwise contribute meaningfully to American society. Even worse, they often feel compelled to hide their undocumented status, unable to be open about who they are. What can help them, however, is a DREAM. The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would create a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants if they attend college or serve in the military. With Congress soon to become more conservative, there is greater urgency now to pass the legislation during 2010’s remaining “lame-duck” Congressional session. But no matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, the DREAM Act is the right thing to do. It will give thousands of deserving young adults the ability to pursue their own American dream… and to live out loud while doing so.

Let’s not be naïve. Immigration policy raises thorny issues, which is why reform has been so hard to achieve. In theory, the DREAM Act should be less controversial because it helps the most sympathetic group: immigrant children brought to the U.S. by their parents, who often do not even know until they are older that they are illegally in the country. The legislation was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001. It was re-introduced in 2009, in large part because the Obama administration and Democrats have pushed for its passage.

The DREAM Act solves the unenviable problem of what to do with the thousands of undocumented aliens who graduate high school each year. Many of them are outstanding students, leaders in their schools and communities, and big dreamers. But they can’t legally drive, hold jobs, or even receive financial aid for college. Many hide their status out of fear of deportation. Being unable to live openly is no way to live a life. Do we just let these young adults, many of whom are bright and productive, remain in the country unemployed and unable to pursue their life dreams? Do we expend government resources to track them down and deport them? Or do we just ignore the problem? For these trapped students, the DREAM Act provides a way out of their phantom zone.

To be eligible, undocumented immigrants must be between 12 and 35 years old at the time of application. They must have: (1) been brought to the U.S. before they were 16; (2) resided in the U.S. for at least 5 consecutive years since they arrived; (3) “good moral character”; and (4) earned a U.S. high school diploma or a GED. Eligible persons would be granted “conditional” status for six years. During that time, the youths would have the legal right to work, attend college or join the military. If they complete two years of college education (graduating from a community college or completing two years toward a bachelor’s degree) or two years of military service, they would be granted permanent lawful residence – setting them on a path to full citizenship. While on conditional status, DREAM Act students would not be eligible for federal education grants (such as Pell grants) but could receive federal work study and student loans, as well as financial aid from individual states.

In short, the DREAM Act rewards effort to meaningfully contribute to our country. And it allows eligible youths to do so openly. That’s exactly what American social policy should encourage: having open, productive lives. And the DREAM Act does not just give undocumented aliens a free ride. They have to earn their pathway to citizenship with education or military service.

Not surprisingly, many arguments are raised against the DREAM Act. Some criticisms of the DREAM Act are born out of ignorance or anti-ignorant hysteria, but there are some legitimate points to consider. Opponents contend that the legislation would encourage more illegal immigration, increases burden on taxpayers, and could give jobs to undocumented aliens over U.S. citizens.

But the opposing viewpoints overlook the obvious. Undocumented aliens are in the United States and will continue to be here. If they cannot work, they will drain – rather than contribute to – social resources. Rather than expending limited public resources to find and deport them, it would be better to put talented young adults to good use. Getting two years of college education or giving two years of military service is more than many American citizens do for our country. The DREAM Act would educate more skilled young adults, who could work meaningfully and then pay taxes to our government. It would provide new pools of good recruits for our armed services. The legislation is thus a practical solution to a practical problem.

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the issue because I’m an immigrant myself – albeit one who was legally brought to America. My parents fled South Vietnam the night before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, and were lawfully brought into the United States as political refugees. I was only two years old at the time so have no memories of it. My parents took what odd jobs they could at first, and worked hard to build a new life in Southern California for themselves and their four children. Due to their hard work and sacrifice, we all later became U.S. citizens. (I sport a mighty-fine bowl haircut in the photo on my citizenship certificate).

But imagine how things would be different if my parents had entered American soil illegally with their four children. I might have grown up my whole childhood thinking I belonged in this country. My parents told my brother, sisters and me to study hard in school so we could have good careers. I responded by being super-student and dreaming of great opportunities (who knows, maybe I could even practice law and write for an Internet web site!). Yet, one day, that inevitable bombshell would somehow land on me to reveal I was an undocumented alien. Imagine how soul-crushing that would feel. Years of hard work and dreaming would be for nothing. And then, I’d be left with fear that I would be ripped away from this country even though I did nothing wrong. The end result would be me hiding my true self, which would drain the soul even further.

It’s a grim story to imagine. But it’s exactly what is happening to undocumented alien youths living in the United States. I’m lucky. The federal government helped my family and many other South Vietnamese refugees gain entry into America when the Vietnam war ended. I could openly pursue my dreams in the U.S. But there are many immigrant students here that literally need an act of Congress to do that.

The time for that act of Congress is now. Contact your Senators and Congressional representatives now, and tell them to DREAM. Tell them we need a pathway to citizenship that is not free, but is to be earned. Tell them we need to foster an environment where promising young adults do not have to hide in the shadows when they did nothing wrong. Tell them we should implement immigration policy that encourages open, productive lives.

The DREAM Act accomplishes all of that. It’s time to enact the legislation so that undocumented students can live out loud and rightfully earn their own American dream.