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What Part of the Future Don’t You Understand?

A photo of a hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Reuters/Jim Young)

Congress faces several important decisions during the dwindling lame duck session, but they should not have dawdled on the DREAM Act. First introduced in 2001, the proposal would provide legal status to qualified children of illegal immigrants brought to this country as minors if they attend college or serve in the military for two years.

The House narrowly, but significantly, passed the legislation on Wednesday; the Senate tabled the vote on their version because Senate Republicans have promised to block votes on any bills other than those on taxes.. Senate sponsors Harry Reid and Dick Durbin vow to bring up the House-approved version of the DREAM Act before the end of the year.

Recent polls also show a slim majority of the public support such a measure.

The Congressional Budget Office said last week the DREAM Act is good for the economy, raising revenue by $2.3 billion and reducing the deficit over the next 10 years by $1.4 billion.

Why so much opposition?

The toxic nature of the immigration debate does not help—talk about immigrants has focused on criminality and illegality, job competition and skills, high costs of social services and budget shortfalls, national security and the border, and culture clashes. The economy isn’t helping either; in recessionary times, collectively turning against immigrants is not unusual.

It is short-sighted to only focus on the pitfalls of the DREAM Act. Opponents argue that it rewards lawbreakers (or the children of lawbreakers) by providing amnesty. Legalizing these youth may also give a break to their parents, whom they will be able to sponsor some years down the line. Moreover, students who benefit from the Act will be in direct competition for admissions to colleges and universities.

The demographic transformation that this country will experience over the next generation is profound. Baby boomers begin turning into seniors starting in 2011, and the ratio of elderly to working-age adults is projected to grow by two-thirds. Replacing these workers—workers who are well-prepared for the US labor market —will rely in large part on these foreign-born youth.

We have already paid for potential DREAM Act recipients’ education in this country. They had as much of a choice in their decision to enter the U.S. illegally as they did to attend American public schools once they were here. Why not see this investment through?

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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