Controversy over the Dream Act

by Nithya Joseph

Immigration policy is always a hot topic in Congress; people care about it, and yet can never seem to settle on an agreement over any aspect of it.  It is a policy area that crosses party lines and affects just about every other policy area you can imagine.  Recently, the Dream Act [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act] has reignited the immigration debate in Congress. As of October 24th, however, this measure was voted down in the Senate.  The Dream Act essentially offers a new pathway for legalization for a specific population of illegal aliens through education.  This is just one small piece of massive immigrant policy.  Yet even as such a small piece of legislation, its potential impacts on immigrant and immigration policy are incredibly significant, and nothing can highlight this better than the controversy and debate over the act.  Advocates of the measure believe that this act opens doors for a population who already has strong cultural connections to the and are willing and able to be productive, engaged citizens; opponents staunchly rebuff any measure that, in their view, rewards those who live in this country illegally on any grounds.  As news of the measure’s defeat spread in the media, Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) commented to The Washington Post, “What crime did these children commit?  They committed the crime of obeying their parents, following their parents to this country.  Give them a chance to prove themselves to this country.”

The advocate sentiment over the act is strong in its push to open educational and military access for a population facing limited opportunities due to inherited illegal status.  Dr. Amelie Constant, a specialist in immigration issues and economics and a visiting professor at the Public Policy Institute, expressed firm support for the act saying, “Children should not be penalized for their parents’ actions.  It is our duty as a nation to equip these children, to educate and train them.  The bigger tragedy here is the idea of differing legal status within families, often splitting families apart”.  Dr. Constant touched upon the idea that in actual practice, the legal ways of coming into the are extremely limited, and the vast majority of legal immigrants come through “vertical” family reunification, meaning an immigrant marries an American citizen and then sponsors in the immediate family.  The positive benefit of the Dream Act, Dr. Constant discussed, is the fact that it opens another venue for legalized status which also benefits the economy and military as a whole.  The chancellor at the University of California Berkeley, Richard Birgeneau, was quoted in Delaware’s The News Journal to have said, “We’ve invested in these students for more than a decade, from kindergarten through high school.  They’ve worked hard, and then they find the American dream is not readily available to them. Our country needs these people. These are the kind of people who have made great and will continue to make great.”

The opposition to the Dream Act, however, obviously took stronger footing in the Senate.  One of the major points of contention within the measure was the issue of what would happen with the status of parents and siblings of those who would have been affected by the Dream Act; would they too have become conditional and eventually legal citizens, or would more families with mixed status been created as a result?  The Dream Act is unclear about this.  In fact, a report done by the Center for Immigration Studies [CIS] stated that 1.4 million family members could potentially be also given amnesty through the legalization of certain family members through the act.  Opponents across party lines in Congress stand by the idea that illegal immigration should not be rewarded, because it would just take away any of the merit and incentive for those immigrants coming to this country legally.  Professor Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown, expressed conflicted sentiment over the act. Lowell explains, “These populations have been living here for such a long time and need to be legalized.  But at the same time, this population is here because of a failure on the part of the government; the Dream Act is basically trying to, in one way or another, fill the vacuum of these failures of the federal government.”

The Dream Act is different than past immigrant policy because it is dealing directly with a population who, all things considered, is culturally “American”; brought up in the United States, having limited or no exposure to their parents’ native country, the people targeted through the Dream Act have never known a home other than America. Opening up the doors to education has numerous advantages- investing in a future labor force of skilled, knowledgeable workers, attaching heavy incentives to graduate from high school, boosting our economy in general, and benefiting from all the advantages that come with education (i.e.: lower crime rates, higher employment, etc.).  Despite the obvious advantages, a major issue with the act is that it has potential to become a slippery slope. Prof. Lowell touched upon this issue by comparing it to the phenomenon of some states issuing drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants.  Drivers’ licenses are one of the main forms of identification in this country and issuing this ID to illegal immigrants misrepresents their status. Yet, as Lowell explains, “You can understand what is happening here, because these populations need insurance, need to take drivers’ tests, and need to be in the system if pulled over by the police, etc. But to issue illegal immigrants licenses is a misrepresentation of status”.  This legislation deserves merit for its main goal, in its immediate effect.  But what about the family members of those the Dream Act immediately affects? The legislation does not answer questions like this. Though these other populations perhaps should be legalized under terms of family reunification, the fact remains that millions of individuals entering the country illegally will be legalized, begging the question what is the validity and merit to current immigration and immigrant policy.

Ultimately, an act like this cannot and should not take away from the major underlying issue, that this country is still in dire need of effective immigration policy that enforces legality.  This act is necessary in that it equips and trains individuals who essentially are American; but the fact that an act like this is even necessary is only a reflection that the federal government has failed to find effective policy which would prevent populations in this precarious status position to even exist within the nation’s borders.  Immigration is incredibly positive, as it builds diversity of both culture and thought, ideally thought of as the very foundation of .  The debate here is not over the merit of immigrants and immigration, but rather over how immigration policy is implemented.  Effective policy allows a flow of immigrants and venues to legalization, while ineffective policy leads to the current situation, with millions of individuals unaccounted for, leading to policies like the Dream Act.  Lowell  put it best saying, “It sounds good and I understand why it’s happening, but I am conflicted because policy like this is failing to deal with the issue and creates other issues in turn.”

The Dream Act was voted down from debate in the Senate on October 24th.  Yet, obvious from the extreme bipartisan nature of the policy and its staunch support and opposition, this piece of legislation is far from being a dead issue in Congress.  The act’s lead supported, Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill. stated, “I’m not going to quit on this. This is an idea whose time will come because it’s based on justice.  Although the Dream Act was voted down, this act is far from being out of the limelight of both political and public interest.

Email Nithya Joseph at



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