THE BLOG
12/24/2010 02:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's the Difference Between DADT and DREAM?

To the sour-tasting disappointment of many who were relying on it, the Senate failed to pass the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibustering block of the DREAM Act, with Republicans promising not to expect much in 2011. Democrats could only muster 55 votes while the White House stood by in either disbelief or anticipated diffidence. It was a bitter legislative pill to swallow considering that - at the end of the day - it was a bill for the kids.

Despite the rousing bigotry of some Senate Republicans who painted the measure as a gateway crack for illegal aliens, the DREAM Act appeared fairly practical. While opponents somehow assumed that children were making the conscious decision to illegally enter the United States, the Act refuted that notion and simply accepted that there was a large community assimilated into the American public which, at one point, had no control over their movements. As infants to toddlers to barely pre-pubescent kids, it is an amazing feat of cognitive ability to determine at that age what the law is against their parents entering a country without legitimate documentation. And, what kid - or baby - is going to stay behind or get left behind as their parents make that dangerous, illegal step across the border?

Opponents must assume these children had the sense to know the law. Funny enough, it's not like states or the federal government mandates its citizens to know the Constitution or any accompanying state, federal or local regulation (which we should, but that's another conversation). So to apply that argument to unknowing and unsuspecting victims of parental fate is a bit ludicrous, at best. Hypocritical at worse given the fact that conservatives are quick to defend the unborn during heated debates over the legality of abortion. Hence, if we are to assume protections for an unborn fetus that is a growing child with cognitive functions, then we should also assume protections and rights for infants and toddlers who are already born, but must be subjected to the questionable judgments of their parents.

But, while DREAM couldn't pass the Senate, we are aware that the repeal of the infamous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" regulation did pass - with votes to spare. In a 65-31 vote, eight Republicans, strangely enough, were quick to jump partisan fence in support of repealing the ban. Reports described White House vigor on the issue with President Barack Obama offering his own personal energy to the issue, down to it's signing.

The timing of the two votes was peculiar, both critical pieces of legislation set for passage on the same day and equally worthy of debate on the Senate floor. Both addressed pressing civil rights issues of the day.

What is somewhat troubling is the difference between the two. Despite the repeal of DADT's good intentions, some could construe failure to pass DREAM as another example of sacrificing the good for the politically expedient. In DADT, Members of Congress faced the wrath of a well-funded, highly organized and relentless lobby that had been intent on passage of the repeal as a follow-up to campaign promises made by then candidate Obama. The advocacy surrounding DADT, followed up with an impressive Capitol Hill phalanx of some of Washington's finest lobbyists, was a superb and efficient display of political action at work.

But, so was the advocacy surrounding DREAM - or so we thought. Despite the pleadings of countless, law-abiding and educated young Americans trapped in a legal limbo not of their making, Senators objected to what should have been the easiest compromise regarding immigration reform. If we can agree to fundamentally disagree on the definition of illegal immigration or if we won't allow amnesty for those who lawlessly enter the country then we can (at the very least) agree on resolving the issue of kids who made no such active decision.

Perhaps if the face of protesting youth on Capitol steps and getting handcuffed in Senate office buildings was of European descent, it would have moved lawmakers to rapid action. But, when the faces are a browner hue, the political picture gets fuzzy. Again, much like with the unemployment insurance debate and the fiscal devastation soon unleashed by Congress on the safety net, we should be real and accept the subtle advantages of certain social privileges.

Bottom line is that all pieces of legislation that pass through Congress are interconnected by the deal. One bill won't pass without shuffling hands on the other. Somehow, DREAM lost the deal - in exchange for passage of DADT.

It's hard to escape the feeling that somewhere along the way advocates of DADT could have ... should have made a conscious decision to team up with DREAM on the grounds that both bills dealt head on with the larger universal issue of civil rights. DADT advocates, annoying some in the African American political and religious community, compare their fight to the integration of Black soldiers in the 1950s. Yet, they seemed unusually quiet on the question of civil rights for these children from faraway places in a country they did not initially pick, but ended up calling home by circumstance.

Some can now celebrate the opportunity to openly fight for their country, defending democracy at home and abroad. But, others too young to know what happened will face the prospect of deportation to foreign lands they do not know. And it will be impossible to forget or forgive what just happened last weekend.

-- CHARLES D. ELLISON

(originally appeared in Politic365.com)