Today Senate Democrats are holding hearings about the controversial DREAM Act. Last week, Senate Democrats also introduced a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that entirely incorporated the DREAM Act. Anti-immigration groups have labeled it a blanket amnesty that rewards law-breaking. While flawed, the DREAM Act is much better than that.
The DREAM Act would allow some undocumented immigrants to gain conditional legal status if they were brought into the country when under the age of 16, lived continuously in the U.S. for at least five years, are of "good moral character," have not committed an otherwise deportable offense, and received the equivalent of a high school degree or acceptance to college. Those who meet the above criteria would have to enroll in college or serve in the military within six years to earn permanent legal residency.
Given these requirements, most undocumented immigrants eligible for residency under the DREAM Act fit a specific profile: They were brought into the country as children without any choice in the matter, speak English, are law-abiding, and are ambitious enough to join the military and enroll in college to gain permanent residency. That is hardly an amnesty.
On the other hand, the DREAM Act could be greatly improved. Specifically, it should be designed to allow opportunity, not increase government handouts.
The Act should put more restrictions on immigrants receiving welfare benefits. Currently, undocumented immigrants are largely excluded from public benefits, and lawful immigrants cannot receive government aid for the first five years of their residency.
It should also restrict federal education aid. Section 10 of the DREAM Act allows those formerly undocumented immigrants who are admitted to permanent residency the opportunity to apply for federal Pell grants and supplemental education support grants.
Immigrants are attracted to the U.S. by high wages and economic opportunities, not handouts. As our economy continues to struggle, fewer immigrants are coming to the U.S. and many are returning home. A booming economy, not welfare, is the main attraction for foreigners seeking a better life here.
Immigrants are also less likely than the native born to be on government support and more likely to be self-employed.
So that begs the question, why is it so imperative to remove welfare benefits from a group that rarely takes advantage of them? The answer is public perception. In poll after poll, Americans are concerned about government costs associated from immigrants collecting public assistance. The government should allay those fears by building a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.
A shining example of success is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. He recently admitted in the New York Times magazine to being an unauthorized immigrant. Vargas is a phenomenal success by anybody's standards, despite his unauthorized immigration status. People similar to Vargas, educated and industrious, are covered by the DREAM Act.
Therein lies the main problem of the DREAM Act. It should allow anybody who wants to attend American universities or join the armed forces a path to legal residency as long as they do not commit felonies, are terrorism suspects, or have terrible communicable diseases. Federal education aid should be off the table, but don't expect that to be discussed in today's hearing.