Making DREAMs Come True

Legislation to Help Young Immigrants Earn Citizenship Comes Up for Vote

This week the Senate has the opportunity to give a new generation of leaders the chance to serve their country, write Angela M. Kelley and Gebe Martinez.

Students and immigrants march toward the federal building in New York carrying a sign that calls for passing the Dream Act, a bill that would open a path to immigration for college-bound students who have lived most of their lives in the United States but lack legal immigrant status. (AP/Kathy Willens)
Students and immigrants march toward the federal building in New York carrying a sign that calls for passing the Dream Act, a bill that would open a path to immigration for college-bound students who have lived most of their lives in the United States but lack legal immigrant status. (AP/Kathy Willens)

This week the Senate can show its faith in the next generation of entrepreneurs, military leaders, teachers, parents, and politicians by moving forward with the DREAM Act, a proposal that would let young people who were brought into the United States through no choice of their own embark on a strict path toward citizenship. The DREAM Act speaks to goals and aspirations by its very name. Its purpose is to help young people make the most of their lives by becoming better educated and serving their country.

Children would have to have been less than 16 years of age when they were brought to the United States to meet the tough eligibility requirements for eventual citizenship. They also would have to be in the United States at least five consecutive years before the law’s enactment, finish high school, and show good moral character. Additionally, they must serve at least two years in the military, graduate from a two-year college, or study for at least two years toward a B.A. or higher degree. Only after they’ve completed these steps will they be eligible for citizenship.

Young students have literally walked from one corner of the country to another, pled their cases with members of Congress, and used their bodies to spell out “DREAM ACT NOW!” on a Florida beach to call attention to their cause. They are among the achievers and the industrious whose paths could be blocked because they lack legal status, and include students such as the Harvard biology major who lived in the United States since he was 4 years old and didn’t know he was undocumented until he was detained by U.S. authorities after crossing the border to visit his mother.

The DREAM Act would benefit these students enormously, as well as the country.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former secretary of state, and other current and former military leaders are urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act because it would greatly enhance military recruitment. The DREAM Act is included in the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2010-12 Strategic Plan to help the military “shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.”

“Potential DREAM Act beneficiaries are also likely to be a military recruiter’s dream candidates for enlistment,” said Margaret Stock, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve (retired), a former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “In a time when qualified recruits—particularly ones with foreign language skills and foreign cultural awareness—are in short supply, enforcing deportation laws against these young people makes no sense. Americans who care about our national security should encourage Congress to pass the DREAM Act.”

Powell also makes a strong case for the proposal’s education component. “America is going to be a minority nation in one more generation. Our minorities are not getting educated well enough now. Fifty percent of our minority kids are not finishing high school. We’ve got to invest in education. We should use the DREAM Act as one way to do it,” Powell said Sunday during an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “Immigration is what’s keeping this country’s lifeblood moving forward,” he said.

The economic trajectory is obvious for the act’s beneficiaries: An advanced education or military career can lead to higher occupations, better pay, and greater contributions to our economy. That’s why educators and business leaders such as Microsoft have endorsed the bill.

But the “I” word, “immigration,” is what may keep this measure from moving forward this week. Because of its military component the DREAM Act is being offered as an amendment to the U.S. Department of Defense Authorization bill. But opponents have pledged to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor.

Even though the DREAM Act has traditionally held bipartisan support—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a conservative, drew it up years ago—some in the Senate only see the legislation as a political nightmare in an election season marked by anti-immigrant rhetoric.

It’s unfair to deny this legislation’s positive nature by casting it as a reward for “bad behavior” as some critics falsely allege. The children that would earn citizenship under this proposal had no control over their undocumented status. But they live in fear that they will be deported to an unfamiliar nation where they have no family or future.

These students are ready to serve the country that is their home. Is the Senate?

Angela Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy and Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Angela Maria Kelley

Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Senior Vice President, Center for American Progress