Mr. Perry’s Dream Act

August 25, 2011

TEXAS GOV. RICK PERRY may believe that evolution is an unproven theory, doubt the scientific consensus on global warming and regard Social Security as what he called an “illegal Ponzi scheme.” But on one major issue his views are grounded in reality: the need to help promising young immigrants fulfill their potential — even if their parents brought them into the country illegally.

As governor in 2001, Mr. Perry signed legislation to grant in-state tuition discounts to youngsters educated in Texas high schools without regard to their immigration status. That bill became the model for similar measures in about a dozen states, including Maryland, that have passed their own version of what’s now known as the Dream Act. Last year alone, some 16,500 undocumented Texas youth benefited from the law — about 1 percent of all students enrolled in the state’s community colleges and universities.

Mr. Perry’s Republican Party has blocked a federal Dream Act in Congress, and GOP state lawmakers in Texas have been busy lately trying to repeal the law there. They argue that Texas cannot afford the $40 million or so that the measure costs in lost tuition income. Never mind that the sum represents about one-twentieth of 1 percent of the state’s $80 billion in annual spending.

To his credit, Mr. Perry has stood by the legislation. “To punish these young Texans for their parents’ actions is not what America has always been about,” Mr. Perry told the New Hampshire Sunday News shortly before announcing his candidacy this month.

In the context of his party’s reflexive stance against illegal immigration, that remark is brave. However, his courage apparently fails him in the debate over a federal Dream Act, which, according to the Sunday News, Mr. Perry opposes.

We’ve asked the Perry campaign for an explanation: Why, if it’s unfair to punish youngsters for their parents’ actions in Texas, is it not equally unfair across the United States? So far, we’ve had no response.

Similarly, Mr. Perry has failed to adequately explain his opposition to overhauling the nation’s broken immigration system, including a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. On the one hand, he has sensibly helped thousands of undocumented Texas students — who have spent most or all of their remembered lives in America — to attend public colleges and universities. On the other hand, he opposes legislation that would enable them to find work legally once they are educated. How does that make sense?

Mr. Perry has used the usual Republican crutch to justify his position, insisting that the border must be made secure before reform is possible. But the border is more secure than it has been in decades — as measured by the soaring federal presence and plummeting rates of illegal crossings and crime on the frontier — and the GOP’s argument is looking increasingly threadbare.

Mr. Perry backed the Dream Act in Texas for the right reasons — to maximize the potential of a cohort of young people who have grown up in America, consider themselves Americans and are highly likely to spend their lives here. He also did so because Hispanics represent an important and fast-growing chunk of the electorate. Those are also the right reasons to push for a federal Dream Act. The sooner high-profile Republicans such as Mr. Perry tell that hard truth to their own party, the better it will be in the long run for the GOP, and for the country.

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