Dream Caught in a Nightmare
In the days after the Dream Act died in the Senate, the most common reaction of those who had passionately supported the bill was that legislators who voted against it will pay for their disdain of Latinos come re-election time.
While it's understandable that immigrant advocates were bitterly
disappointed at the failure of a law that would have created a path to
citizenship for certain children of illegal immigrants, they are missing an
important piece of the puzzle. Yes, great amounts of anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic
sentiments have colored the issue of illegal immigration for the past several
years. Yet the real reason the Dream Act failed last week was not
discrimination. It was the economy.
Those dumbfounded that anyone could have opposed legislation that
encouraged young people to attend college and serve in the military, as a path
to citizenship, aren't seeing the big picture: Unemployment is high and
legalizing an estimated 1.2 million young people would have put them in direct
competition with U.S.-born citizens for college slots, and for jobs that
currently don't exist.
There are no heart-tugging hunger strikes, prayer vigils or gatherings
of young men and women in mortarboards and ROTC uniforms that could have
competed against the ravages of the worst economic conditions since the Great
Let's look at the economic scene in November 1986, when the Immigration
Reform and Control Act -- the last amnesty, which legalized an estimated 3
million illegal immigrants and required employers to attest to their employees'
immigration status -- became law. At that time, the economy had been growing
for four years. Oil prices were low, consumer spending was strong and
residential construction was rebounding, according to a December 1986 Federal
Reserve economic review.
Put these numbers into perspective: In 1986, the average unemployment
rate was 7 percent compared to a 2010 average of 9.7 percent; the consumer
confidence index was averaging in the 90s whereas today it is at a pessimistic
And while college grads today are facing only an average 5 percent
unemployment rate compared to 10 percent for those with just a high school
diploma, it is the highest it has been since 1970 when the government started
breaking out those numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's
2.4 million people with a bachelor's degree or higher who are out of work,
competing with an additional 1.65 million college grads every May for the
foreseeable future. Could anyone doubt that those people -- or their parents --
picked up the phone to call their senators with as much passion and veracity as
those who supported the Dream Act?
Several days before the Senate voted down the act 55-41 (five short of
the number for cloture), the Congressional Budget Office released a report that
claimed the House version of the bill would reduce deficits by about $2.2
billion over the 2011-2020 period through a rosy combination of revenue
increases and lower spending. Perhaps if these figures had been released,
analyzed and debated well in advance of the vote, a great economic argument
could have been made for why it is shortsighted to plan for the future based on
the economic conditions of today. But that opportunity was squandered.
That exemplifies the real failure here. This country has allowed the
rhetoric about how legalizing illegal immigrants will lower our standard of
living -- and how dissing the Hispanic voting bloc will result in dire
consequences for politicians -- to overshadow any meaningful debates.
For instance, by the time the House version of the bill got to the
Senate floor, the time frame in which the military or educational requirements
were to be met was lengthened by five years and "good cause" waivers
were added, the period for security and law enforcement checks had been
lengthened, and eligibility for certain Stafford loans had been added. Public
deliberation on those points could have shaped parts of a future comprehensive
immigration reform and made the Dream Act efforts worthwhile.
It's been five years since immigration reform was pushed by President
George W. Bush and there's been no progress in devising a strategy for how to
deal with our 11 million illegal immigrants -- and maybe even improving our
long-term economic outlook by making the best use of them. This is what all
voters should be angry about next time they go to the polls.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group