Hope for America's Undocumented Youth: the DREAM Act

On July 1st, Barack Obama delivered his longest immigration speech to date at American University, where he called for congressional action to fix our “broken immigration system.” He took a pragmatic position, calling neither for total amnesty nor mass deportation, but rather a comprehensive immigration reform that would both increase border enforcement and provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for those already residing in the U.S. illegally.

Critics have claimed that, as usual on such matters, the speech was short on specifics . One of the only programs he explicitly mentioned, and stated his lasting support for, was the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This popular measure, most recently introduced in 2009, is currently working its way through the congressional legislative process. The bill would provide undocumented students the opportunity to gain conditional citizenship after completing two years of college or military service, and six years displaying “good moral character” as a U.S. resident. States will also be allowed to determine if DREAM Act students would be eligible for in-state tuition payments.

Students across the country, many of whom are undocumented and risk deportation if they publicly acknowledge their status, have expressed their support for this bill. Given that the federal government has made little progress toward immigration reform, frustrated state governments have lashed out with mean-spirited and poorly planned laws such as Arizona’s SB1070, making both legal and “illegal” immigrants in this country fearful for their future and their safety.

Students who promote the DREAM Act—DREAMers—have emphasized that they are Americans more than anything else, raised in the U.S. and taught in American schools. Now, they either face the difficulty of entering college as an undocumented student, or the near impossibility of obtaining legitimate employment even after college graduation. Despite strongly xenophobic responses towards the immigration debate, a poll by First Focus actually showed strong support for the DREAM Act throughout the country. The organization’s president, Bruce Lesley, has stated that, “the future success of our country lies in our ability to cultivate an educated work force capable of competing in the global economy. We cannot afford to continue losing the talent of so many students who have already been educated in American schools.” Since the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyer v. Doe, all children in the United States, regardless of status, have been guaranteed a K-12 public education. As thousands of talented undocumented students graduate from high school each year, the U.S. stands to lose not only possible members of an educated and competitive work force, but also any financial return on the twelve-year investment the government already will have expended on these students’ education.

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