The Senate votes this week on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, now attached to the Defense Authorization bill. For longtime advocates of comprehensive immigration reform, we believe the DREAM Act is an important step in the right direction. This legislation has a history of bipartisan support, and even US military support, witnessed in the Department of Defense's 2010-2012 strategic plans to strengthen the military's recruiting efforts. Now, thanks to Senator Harry Reid's courage and the grassroots leadership of national advocacy groups, this DREAM may soon become reality.
Our current law doesn't make sense. Each year, tens of thousands of potential new taxpayers and higher wage earners enter our job market, yet we undermine their ability to contribute meaningfully to our economy. Our high schools are graduating roughly 65,000 undocumented students each year, and these thousands are entering the marketplace far from equipped to improve their circumstances or contribute meaningfully to our economy.
After funding these 65,000 students through K-12, we leave them unsupported by barring them from receiving federal aid for college (to which other students are entitled). As a result, these high school graduates will make only half the earnings a college graduate will make -- at $600 a week instead of $1,000 a week -- and will suffer a higher unemployment rate than college graduates -- at 9 percent instead of 4 percent. Had these students been able to receive, and later pay back, federal loans for university training and eventually a college diploma, they would be able to contribute over $9,000 annually to our economy -- that is, roughly $5,300 more in taxes and $3,900 less in government expenses (i.e., social services made available to the general public).
Beyond access to financing for college, the legislation makes possible a formal pursuit for legal status for students residing in the U.S. for five years or longer. This, too, has important implications for our economy as studies have consistently shown that undocumented immigrants who receive legal status move on to significantly better jobs, thus broadening the tax base, and improving their capacity to contribute economically to society. On average, wages increase 15 percent over a five-year time period for immigrants legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
The DREAM Act makes this upward mobility possible -- and, consequently, increased financial returns to our economy -- by creating a path for undocumented immigrant youths, who entered the U.S. as children, to obtain legal permanent-resident status if, and only if, they graduate from high school and go on to college or military service.
The irony behind the title of the DREAM Act is that we are not remotely dreamy-eyed with what we are proposing. The reality is that we have 65,000 high school graduates ready each year to contribute to our economy, but without the mechanisms to do so. Providing legal means and loan guarantees, as the DREAM Act proposes to do, is a small investment with a large return. Tens of thousands of high school graduates stand ready and waiting to help our economy. It is about time we let them do so. The gains are too inviting to ignore, and these students' dreams too promising to pass up. To my Senate colleagues, do the right thing and pass the DREAM Act.
Rep Honda is the Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
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