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DREAM Act Returns as a Possible Incremental Step on Immigration Reform

Republicans have a default switch to block anything the Democrats propose, particularly on immigration, which has tremendous opposition among the more nativist parts of their base. But they’re trying to walk a thin line to not alienate Hispanic voters for a generation. While the Arizona law has a good deal of popular support, the lies being used to justify it (and here I have to praise Dana Milbank for being willing to call them lies) are so ludicrous, even hardcore anti-immigration pols like Brian Bilbray are forced to repudiate them. Bilbray did slip and call Phoenix “the kidnapping capital of the world” before walking that back. There’s a two-step going on, with Republicans wanting to rile up their base without antagonizing the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

That’s not going to be easy. But one policy where the parties may find common ground, and where Republicans could point to their efforts at tolerance, is the DREAM Act. Introduced by Dick Durbin several years ago, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students, most of whom had no choice coming to America with their families, the opportunity to gain citizenship if they complete two years toward a college degree or enroll in two years of military service. Over 2 million students would conceivably have a path to citizenship under this policy, allowing college graduates with multiple skills the chance to contribute to American society. It makes no sense to waste a public education on good students who didn’t have a say in their migration status as children by barring them from realizing their goals.

The DREAM Act has always been bipartisan legislation, with sponsors and supporters like Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar and Kay Bailey Hutchison. It has been introduced in various past Congresses and got 52 votes in the Senate in 2007. But if the Republican co-sponsors stayed on the bill in 2010, it would be likely to have enough votes to clear the Senate. And Hatch has already signaled his support.

“With regard to the DREAM Act, a lot of these kids are brought in as infants. They don’t even know that they’re not citizens until they graduate from high school,” Hatch said. “If they’ve lived good lives, if they’ve done good things, why would we penalize them and not let them at least go to school?”

It’s mystifying how the same people who argue that 18 year-olds shouldn’t have the freedom to make their own medical decisions without parental notification and consent, but they should have broken from their mothers and fathers at age 2 and refused to move to another country. But consistency isn’t a conservative strong suit.

You can see a way forward for this bill, however. Hatch’s support would presumably give breathing room for the few remaining moderate Republicans to endorse the bill. Democrats unsure of the prospects of a comprehensive bill at this time would probably jump at the opportunity to put something on the boad. Numerous protests by undocumented students show the passion over this bill in some segments of the public, and the reward it would offer if passed. And even the conservative Arizona Republic editorial board argued in its favor today.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from public school every year and are denied the chance to go on to college. Culturally and socially, these kids are as American as Mom’s pie. They grew up pledging allegiance to our flag and have little or no connection to any other country.

It is unjust and inhumane to deny these kids the chance to continue building productive lives under the Stars and Stripes.

But for those who are not impressed by humane considerations, we offer the economic argument. By denying these talented children the chance to further their education, the nation is ensuring that the investment taxpayers made in their education cannot be maximized.

Taking the DREAM Act out of the comprehensive bill won’t suddenly cause votes to drop off, so there’s little reason not to de-link it and make this legitmately tangible improvement. Let’s make Orrin Hatch and his GOP colleagues as good as their word.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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