10/15/2010 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A DREAM Undeterred

Langston Hughes once posed the elusive question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" Well, in the face of a college education being denied to 65,000 undocumented students every year, the question federal legislators should ask themselves is how are the dreams of undocumented youth undeterred after a decade of legislative lethargy? The answer: Because young advocates of the DREAM Act, documented and not, believe we are fighting for the fundamental right of everyone to be able to pursue a higher education.

Let me back up.

The DREAM Act, or Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which was first introduced in 2001, allows undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. as minors to be eligible for federal financial aid and in-state tuition or military service if they complete high school and don't have a criminal record. Once in college or the military, they have six years of conditional residency, after which they become permanent legal residents if, within the six years, they complete two years of college or military service. Essentially, the bill allows the best and brightest undocumented youth to obtain their legal status through a college education or military service. Earned residency through civic participation that benefits the United States. Pretty basic stuff, right? And in times like these, when we need more wealthy taxpayers to boost revenues and troops to increase our ever-thinning volunteer military that's fighting the longest war in U.S. history, what lawmaker wouldn't jump at the chance to pass a bill that does both?

Forty-three, apparently. The DREAM Act was recently before the U.S. Senate as an amendment to S. 3454, a military authorization bill, which was voted down on a procedural technicality 56-43 -- deferred, you might say. How did it happen? Let's break it down.

Proponents of the DREAM Act argued mainly three points. The first is that the DREAM Act is good for the economy. It's hard to disagree with that, as lifetime earnings for someone with a bachelors degree is about one million dollars more than someone who has a high school diploma. Add to that, the 825,000 people who would probably obtain legal status from the DREAM Act would generate an estimated 1.38 trillion dollars over their working lifetimes. To context that number, the U.S. has spent a little less than that on military operations since 9/11. The DREAM Act would infuse an extraordinary amount of money into the U.S. economy.

A college education also stems the cyclical tide of poverty in low-income families, which we all know would reduce government spending on social programs. The percentage of children in low-income families drops from 56 percent in families where parents have just a high school diploma to 24 percent if the parents has at least some college. The importance of a higher education is even more pronounced for children of undocumented parents. Children whose parents are undocumented, even if the children are citizens, are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as children in families with full citizenship. All of these statistics are exacerbated by the U.S. Census Bureau's recent report that 44 million Americans, or one in seven, is living in poverty, including one in five children. Keep in mind this reflects citizens who are traditionally much better off than their undocumented neighbors. So with access to college, fewer undocumented families will be caught in the impoverished undertow of society's neglect and given a chance to pull themselves into the middle class.

Argument two is that the military is in dire need of more troops and the DREAM Act allows youth who are willing to fight and die for a country that refuses to legally recognize them to serve in our ranks. The U.S. really shouldn't be turning away people who want to serve while we're fighting two expensive, long, unpopular wars. Plus, if you're an undocumented young person who loves this country enough to want to serve despite the legal oppression and state-imposed limits on your aspirations, then you should at least be given an opportunity to sign-up.

Finally, there's the point that the DREAM Act is so popular and narrowly-tailored that it will be a finger in the leaking dyke as Congress prepares for comprehensive immigration reform. It would partially fix our universally-accepted-as-broken immigration system by allowing a few thousand bright young people to earn their legal status.

But that's where the mainstream advocacy ends. And that's why the DREAM Act continues to be deferred.

Senators Richard Durbin, Richard Lugar, Harry Reid, and all the other praiseworthy proponents of the DREAM Act have been listening to economists analyze the financial benefits of more college graduates in our country, military leaders discuss the need to increase our troops, and immigration experts talk about how the system is about to shatter. Who they haven't been listening to is the the young people, many of whom are undocumented, talk about why they risk being harassed, ostracized, and even deported to go to college and advocate for the DREAM Act. Sure, they've been ammunition for anecdotal tear-jerkers on the Senate floor, but have their substantive messages been considered by lawmakers? No. Because nowhere in this debate is the DREAM Act being justified as the promotion of education as a fundamental right. Yes, it will improve our economy, increase the number of troops, and smooth immigration reform, but none of these are the main reason to pass the legislation. They are important collateral justifications, but fall short of the fact that everyone has the right to reach their potential through a higher education and gain legal status in the country where they were raised.

Moving beyond the pragmatic and engaging this issue on the moral stage of individual rights is not only the right thing to do, it is the only way the DREAM Act will pass. When Senator John McCain opposes legislation that would allow young patriotic men and women to serve in the military and Senator Mitch McConnell opposes a bill that would lead to more wealthy Americans for whom he could cut taxes, you know you've lost the pragmatic battle. When 'moderate' Senators applaud the civically engaged undocumented youth in press releases but vote against their bill on technicalities, you've lost the pragmatic battle.

So why not fight it on moral grounds? Opponents to the DREAM have successfully deferred it for a decade, but when does deferred become denied? Opponents said the DREAM Act was too expensive yesterday and are saying it was incorrectly attached as an amendment today. Why will they oppose it tomorrow? If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, then attempting to pass the DREAM Act only as an economically and militarily sound policy is insane. So listen to the students, we've been shouting long enough.

It's no excuse to say students haven't been vocal on this issue. Since 1947 the United States Student Association has advocated for education as a right and for the past several years the DREAM Act has been endorsed by the National Student Congress for that reason. In the two weeks leading up to the Senate's vote on S. 3454, youth DREAM Act advocates made over 335,000 senatorial contacts, including calls, letters, and office visits, and organized actions in dozens of states calling for passage of the legislation. Undocumented students are getting arrested across the nation, some literally risking their lives, to bring attention to their right to pursue a higher education so they can achieve the American dream. Beyond just the DREAM Act, the student movement in general is defined as an effort to make education a right. In Massachusetts, for example, students marched 100 miles from Amherst to Boston for the Day to Defend Public Education, bringing attention to devastating budget cuts putting a college degree out of reach for too many young people.

The DREAM Act would improve our society in many ways, but its reason for passing is found not in any tangible benefit to our country; rather, it should pass because everyone has the right to an education and an equal opportunity to succeed. Those who would qualify for the DREAM Act simply want to stay in the country they've lived in since childhood and pursue their potential through military service or a college degree. Champions of undocumented students in Congress can talk about why it makes legislative sense until they are blue in the face, but until they listen to the voices of those directly impacted by the legislation and advocate for the DREAM Act because it advances education as a right, the dream will be deferred for undocumented youth. Students have been undeterred for a decade, waiting for our legislative champions to catch on. Last month's asinine debate over procedural technicalities demonstrated the urgency of moving the DREAM Act as a moral imperative.

What happens to a dream deferred? It is realized by the undeterred.

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