For years, the DREAM Act has been the low hanging fruit of the immigration reform debate. Yet almost a decade after a version of the law was first proposed, it is no closer to passage or implementation.
The DREAM Act centers on young people who are not legal residents, but came to the country as children in the company of illegal immigrants. Now graduating from high schools around the country at the rate of about 65 thousands a year, they don't qualify for most college loan or scholarship programs, and their home states charge them radically higher out-of-state tuition for higher education.
The DREAM Act would end those problems for students who are out of status, and finish high school, or spend two years in the military. Its opponents do not want to open the door to eligibility for legal status for so many thousands of people, and the law's supporters don't want to accept half a loaf in the form of passage of a measure that falls short of the far reaching fix they seek for immigration.
The young people themselves? They are sympathetic characters out of central casting... many are successful students, committed to making lives in the United States. They were not responsible for their presence in the US, whatever their status. The lawbreakers were really their parents, and it just rubs certain Americans the wrong way to see their opportunities limited by something they did not choose. Their home countries are places they hardly know, or don't remember.
So for America, what's the best play? Make these young people wait for a thorough solution to immigration reform? Let them in temporarily pending the completion of their education or training? State colleges and universities are strapped, and charging in-state tuition to thousands of kids would mean foregoing lots of cash. On the one hand, they have no plans to return to countries that are foreign to them now, on the other hand they are, as one of our panelists pointed out, unemployable under American law. So which is it, encourage investment in a young adult to give them the tools to be more productive in the work force? Or concede that an illegal immigrant with a college diploma may end up more frustrated than one without it.
When I was in Iowa in early 2008 for the campaigning before the Iowa caucuses, I followed Gov. Mike Huckabee, then the governor of Arkansas, to a college campus where he got a question about the DREAM Act. During a campaign season marked with escalating tough talk about immigration and enforcement, Gov. Huckabee was alone among Republicans willing to make it possible for illegal immigrant students in their states to enroll as residents and pay accordingly. "They're not going home to a place they don't even remember," the governor said, "I think we're a better country than that."
There are logical, legal, coherent arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. Even Americans who have little patience for pleas for a "path to citizenship" for people who've come here to live illegally agree these young people are not to blame for their predicament and don't want to see them punished.
So again, for supporters of the DREAM Act, what's the play? As more and more states prepare to introduce laws that mirror Arizona's SB1070, what shot does the law have? Are Republicans in any mood to give the President any kind of legislative victory that could strengthen Latino support for Democrats as we near the midterm elections? Are Latino voters going to credit President Obama?
It's starting to look like the sour mood in the electorate won't be improved unless the US starts racking up better job numbers. For a country with millions of unemployed and underemployed, there may be little stomach for a policy that puts hundreds of thousands of new, better educated graduates on equal footing with native-born workers.
Until more of these questions can be answered its hard to see the DREAM Act going anywhere soon. These littlest immigrants, now all grown up, are collateral damage in the war over immigration. As in many of the big battles over social policy, the loudest voices at the end of the ideological spectrum now control the debate. The people who need the law most just have to wait.
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