The undocumented students movement works to provide minors brought to the country illegally a chance to earn and use their education in the United States. Most affected youths have completed their high school education, and many even complete college before confronting the harsh reality of their situation: they cannot find legal employment and live in fear of deportation.
I support reform that would allow undocumented students who prove they intend to contribute to society a chance to gain lawful residency in the United States. Providing a pathway for these students to earn citizenship not only corrects a grave injustice in our legal system — the punishment of minors who have no culpability for being brought here — it makes good economic sense by ensuring an educated and ambitious segment of the population is not barred from employment.
In fact, such reform has been repeatedly introduced in Congress. Known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), this legislation would grant provisional residency to undocumented minors who complete two years of higher education or complete at least two years of military service. These individuals could then pursue permanent residency through traditional immigration channels.
Since its initial introduction in 2001, however, the DREAM Act has failed to gather the required votes from Congress. Its failure can be attributed to a variety of political factors, including the notion that it ought to be included in comprehensive immigration reform in order to bolster the overall attractiveness of CIR. Unfortunately, the Act’s delay has extended too long, and undocumented students cannot accept the continued hold placed on their lives to satisfy politics.
While the DREAM Act has not been reintroduced to the Senate since 2007, debate over its passage continues. Opponents urge alternative measures and raise policy concerns —both long- and short-term. Many opponents of the DREAM Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform call for increased deportation, fence building along the U.S.-Mexico boarder, and laws that “get tough” on undocumented immigrants. Such measures have proven popular in several states, buttressed by conservative concerns over use of limited state resources on undocumented immigrants and anti-immigrant sentiment, leading to the enactment of stringent laws and enforcement in Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.
While appealing in its straightforward approach to tougher law enforcement, Act supporters believe the “get tough” approach may not be as straightforward as many lawmakers and voters believe. Efforts to tighten enforcement and border security do little to address the economic and social issues that drive immigration — such as high wage earning disparity and family separation — the implementation of an extensive deportation policy presents several prohibitive problems.
In addition, deportation of all undocumented immigrants is a practical impossibility. The Department of Homeland Security estimated that 10.8 million undocumented immigrants resided within the United States as of January 2009. Many policy analysts doubt the federal government has sufficient resources or personnel to deport even a significant portion of this population.
Second, little evidence supports the claim that deportation deters new undocumented immigrants from entering. Many immigrants belong to mixed-citizenship families containing lawful citizens and undocumented immigrants. These families will be inclined to reunite even after the deportation of a family member. Further, deportation removes undocumented minors from the only community they know. Rather than making a new life in a country they know little to nothing about, many undocumented immigrants will choose to remain in or return to the United States, continuing to live in the country without education, earning power, or potential for contribution.
Many oppose the DREAM Act because they believe its provision of residency amounts to a policy of amnesty, rewarding immigrants for breaking the law and encouraging further illegal immigration. To counter such concerns, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), co-author of the act, maintains that the Act would not reward unlawful behavior because eligible minors should not be held responsible for their illegal entry. The responsibility for breaking the law belongs to their parents. In addition to lack of culpability, the DREAM Act seeks to grant citizenship to only motivated, hardworking immigrants — those willing to contribute and become lawful members of American society.
However, the most significant argument against the DREAM Act is the premise that its provisions would stretch limited educational and state resources, burdening already tenuous budgets and leaching off benefits meant for citizens. This argument relies primarily on an appeal to fairness, contending that taxpayers should not be required to subsidize the education of illegal immigrants and that their inclusion abuses tax-funded public benefits.
While this argument has garnered extensive public support from its appeal to fiscal conservation and fairness, it relies on several misconceptions regarding undocumented immigrants. The first misconception springs from the belief that undocumented students do not pay taxes. In fact, all undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes on any items they buy, and studies indicate that a majority pay federal income taxes. To find employment, many undocumented workers obtain fake work papers and Social Security Numbers. They then pay income taxes through their fraudulent Social Security numbers, at times paying more than lawful citizens because their status makes them unable to obtain a tax refund. In 2004, Social Security reported that approximately 10% of the Social Security surplus came from undocumented workers, whose money was collected and stored in “earning suspense file[s]” designed to organize money contributed from incorrect or fictitious Social Security numbers. Some analysts believe undocumented immigrants actually subsidize the overall Social Security system by contributing money for benefits they then can never reclaim.
Perhaps the most egregious argument against reforming immigration policy is the claim that now is not the right time. Political pressures and the controversial nature of immigration policy make both Democratic and Republican lawmakers extremely wary of supporting the DREAM Act. Their reluctance pass reform stems from a fear of alienating constituents and public interest groups that hold strong views on the nature of immigration reform. Further, the controversial nature of immigration reform polarizes lawmakers, making it hard to establish a clear consensus.
This response, however, is unacceptable to advocates and students waiting for the Act. They refuse to see the unfavorable political climate a justification for delaying reform because, for them, time is limited. Should the Act be delayed too long, many who are currently eligible will loose the opportunities and benefits promised by the Act. While lawmakers debate the timing of reform, undocumented immigrants face withering possibilities and darkening futures.