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How the Dream Act transcends politics

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By Michael Gerson
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When I was a Senate staffer more than a decade ago, Republicans hit on a tactic to advance school choice. They kept narrowing the eligibility standard to cover poorer and poorer families with children in only the most spectacularly failing schools, daring Democrats to vote against the most sympathetic possible group of students. I remember one liberal senator saying in exasperation, "Someday, you are going to make this impossible to oppose."

The strategy didn't produce a law. But it was clarifying. It demonstrated that most Democrats would choose ideology, and the good opinion of teachers' unions, above the interests of the neediest children.

The Dream Act now before Congress is similarly clarifying. The legislation would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. Applicants must have graduated from high school or have gotten a GED. They would be given a conditional legal status for six years, in which they must complete two years of college or serve at least two years in the military. If they failed to meet the requirements - or committed a crime (other than a non-drug-related misdemeanor) - they would lose their legal status and could be deported. If they succeeded, they would be granted a green card and could apply for citizenship.

It would be difficult to define a more sympathetic group of potential Americans. They must demonstrate that they are law-abiding and education-oriented. Some seek to defend the country they hope to join. The Defense Department supports the Dream Act as a source of quality volunteers. Business groups welcome a supply of college-educated workers. The Department of Homeland Security endorses the legislation so it can focus on other, more threatening, groups of illegal immigrants.

Critics counter that the law would be a reward for illegal behavior and an incentive for future lawbreaking. But these immigrants, categorized as illegal, have done nothing illegal. They are condemned to a shadow existence entirely by the actions of their parents. And the Dream Act is not an open invitation for future illegal immigrants to bring their minors to America. Only applicants who have lived in America continuously for five years before enactment of the law would qualify.

Opponents cite the cost of the Dream Act. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next 10 years due to increased tax revenue - then increase the deficit once a variety of federal benefits kick in. One group opposed to the law claims it will require $6.2 billion in education subsidies. A UCLA study counters that Dream Act beneficiaries would generate $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion in income during their working lives.

All of which demonstrates the limited value of partisan cost estimates, passing the same data through many a sieve. The outcome of this dispute depends on a more basic economic determination: Would this category of hardworking immigrants ultimately be an advantage to America or a drain? It is a principle of democratic capitalism and non-Malthusian economics that ambitious human beings are not just mouths but hands and brains. They are a resource - the main source of future wealth.

And the choice here is not between the presence of these young immigrants and their absence. No one is proposing the mass deportation of this particular group, which would be last on the target list of even the most enthusiastic immigration restrictionist. The actual choice is between allowing these young men and women to develop their talents and serve in the military, or not.

Whatever its legislative fate, the Dream Act is effective at stripping away pretense. Opponents of this law don't want earned citizenship for any illegal immigrant - even those personally guilty of no crime, even those who demonstrate their skills and character. The Dream Act would be a potent incentive for assimilation. But for some, assimilation clearly is not the goal. They have no intention of sharing the honor of citizenship with anyone called illegal - even those who came as children, have grown up as neighbors and would be willing to give their lives in the nation's cause.

During the current lame-duck session of Congress, Republicans have been correct to emphasize economic concerns, which the public prioritized in the recent election. But supporting the Dream Act would send a useful message - that some Republicans in victory are capable of governing for the sake of everyone.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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