The U.S. Senate voted down the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act last week. The Dream Act, first introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2005, would offer permanent resident status to children of undocumented immigrants provided they graduate from high school and complete two years in college or the military. Despite the fact that the act’s passage would be a positive symbolic gesture, it was not the ideal solution and could have easily turned into simply a backdoor draft of immigrants into the military. Even aside from that issue, Congress’s decision to vote down the Dream Act for the third time since 2005 raises serious concerns that the government is still not ready to deal with the full issue of illegal immigration.
Because talk of increasing security at American borders and removing undocumented residents from workplaces and schools has heightened in recent years, there have periodically been moves countering this talk to ensure the freedoms and opportunities of undocumented immigrants and their children. For immigrant children who want to serve in the military, the Dream Act is a win-win situation. But for others, it could be something more sinister.
Financing a college education is a major hurdle for anyone, but especially so for undocumented immigrants, because some of the usual sources of financial aid are not an option. Thus when the reward of legal status is dangled before illegal immigrants, most of them will see the military as the default option. It should be no surprise that several officials at the Department of Defense have spoken in favor of the Dream Act.
The most important potential benefit of the Dream Act – providing undocumented immigrants a path to education, self-improvement and integration – may be lost because it does not include a way to finance a college education for those who choose that option. To avoid simply becoming a recruitment tool for the military, the act must entail ways to make college as viable an option for these students as the military. College should not be out of reach for anyone because of financial barriers, the children of illegal immigrants included.
Undocumented immigrants who have graduated high school and wish to go on to college have met every requirement of the ideal of American immigration. Many of these immigrants came to this country to escape strife as young children with their families and worked their way through the system, learned the language and culture and got an education. The contribution that such students can make to our society if given the chance is significant. Consider, for example, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an undocumented immigrant who excelled at Princeton University and became a Sachs Scholar. Peralta then went through a year-long battle to obtain legal status when he realized that his research trip to Oxford University would mean that he would be barred from re-entry into America.
Undocumented immigrants’ contribution our society is not limited to the low-skill labor industry, as is often stereotyped. Can we really afford to turn people like Peralta away and have them take their significant intellectual potential with them? Giving immigrants and their children more resources and opportunities would open up new avenues for them and only serve to enhance our country.
Even an improved version of the Dream Act, however, wouldn’t be a complete solution. The act would cater to only a small percentage of illegal immigrants in the country, because only an estimated 65,000 people would be eligible. Broader moves that do not restrict the people covered under the law need to be passed in Congress. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, for instance, could have provided legal status to the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country if it had not failed in the Senate.
The government’s antipathetic attitude toward undocumented immigrants is unhealthy for our country because that group is undeniably an integral part of the American society. They cannot be ignored any longer.