Rekindling The American DREAM

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) died a slow death before Christmas, failing to gain the 60 votes necessary to bring it to the Senate floor. It is the latest victim of America’s immigration polarization. On one side the “build the fence” crowd would do anything to keep unauthorized immigrants out. Opposing them, the amnesty crowd holds that legalizing undocumented immigrants will solve all immigration woes. Both sides are wrong.

The DREAM Act would have allowed some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to gain conditional legal status. That conditional status would be extended to permanent legal residency if they complete at least two years of college or join the military within six years. On a negative note, they would have access to Pell Grants and other federal education aid.

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. The DREAM Act was hardly an amnesty, but that didn’t stop detractors from labeling it as such.

The DREAM Act is a response to our quagmire of an immigration system.

The result is a thriving black market of unauthorized immigrants and human smugglers. The resulting pernicious social ills can only be eliminated through the same mechanism that stamped out the harms of alcohol prohibition: creating a better legal immigration system.

America’s promise has always been one of prosperity. The Swedish, German, Dutch and English immigrants of the nation’s early years were followed by waves of Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Now they’re coming from Latin America and Asia. The aspirations of today’s immigrants for prosperity and a better life remain unchanged.

According to the American Community Survey, immigrants have rates of self-employment 25% higher than that for the native born. Labor force participation rates for all immigrants are 5% higher and close to 50% higher for undocumented immigrants, as reported by PEW Hispanic Center. From self-reliance to innovativeness and entrepreneurial spirit, immigrants embody some of the best characteristics of America.

Fortunately America’s welfare state excludes the vast majority of immigrants, offsetting the trap of perpetual dependency. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act excludes legal immigrants from most federal welfare programs for their first five years of residency, excludes undocumented immigrants entirely and grants states leeway to impose further limits.

Moreover, welfare is designed to help women, the elderly and the sick, while the majority of immigrants are male, young and healthy. And not all stay. Immigration has and will always be a two-way street. Since the beginning of the economic downturn almost 2 million undocumented immigrants have returned to their native countries, as job opportunities have vanished in the U.S. If they were coming for welfare they would be streaming across the border as never before, not returning home.

Assimilation will only be aided through expanding legal immigration.

Even today PEW reports that more than 90% of all second-generation Hispanics speak English well because the returns of learning English–the lingua franca of the world–are enormous. Assimilation takes time. English proficiency, increasing income and learning skills don’t happen overnight; they never have. But assimilation is a process as unstoppable as the movement of people.

This is why the failure of the DREAM Act is so predictable. Poll after poll shows that American apprehension about immigration mostly concerns paying taxes to support immigrants, and rightly so. The DREAM Act should have further restricted government benefits to immigrants, ideally cutting them off entirely. Instead it expanded them.

Just as vitally, the DREAM Act should have expanded legal immigration opportunities for noncriminal and healthy immigrants. It’s a travesty that some immigrants have to wait 30 years or longer just for a chance to enter the U.S. legally, which is why they choose to do so illegally. The combination of restrictive immigration laws and relative prosperity guarantees future undocumented immigration.

Laws like the DREAM Act would be unnecessary if noncriminal and healthy immigrants could enter the U.S. with a minimum of burdens. Cutting off all welfare benefits and expanding legal immigration opportunities is a winning political combination that would attract bipartisan support.

A new opportunity to refocus the political debate in the wake of the DREAM Act’s failure is upon us. Building a wall around the welfare state and expanding legal immigration is a novel and simple political approach that will reopen the golden door to American prosperity for immigrants and natives alike.