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Blocking a DREAM

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

The DREAM Act fell five votes short of a supermajority in the Senate on Saturday, blocking a bill that would have provided legal status to qualified children brought to the United States illegally by their parents if they attend college or join the military. It is unlikely that we will see any federal immigration legislation in the foreseeable future, since the bipartisan-backed DREAM Act was, in many ways, the bellwether that should have stood a chance.

Saturday’s vote was not about politics, even though by all accounts, politics prevented many in Congress from voting for the DREAM Act. Though advocates came out in numbers, the vote is not ultimately about the struggle of the youth who have both dreams and fears about their own well-being. They have good reason to be disappointed.

The failure to move forward with the DREAM Act is not exclusively about fairness. Opponents would like to erase this population from within our borders and fear a fresh flood of illegal immigrants. Rewarding “lawbreakers” like these youth, and by extension their parents, amounts to amnesty. Those who support the Act argue that legal status for these youth would allow them to both achieve their potential and contribute better to this country. We have invested in schooling these youth already, so why not see them through higher education or military service?

Saturday’s vote is fundamentally about the costs of marginalizing willing workers.

Recently, it’s become popular for business, education and political leaders to call for “stapling green cards to diplomas” of foreign graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. We are turning away talent and skills when we should be welcoming students to stay long term and help us stay globally competitive. These leaders have a good argument about the future of the U.S. economy.

In many ways, immigrant youth parallel their more accomplished higher-ed counterparts. While many would-be “dreamers” may not go on to graduate school, why shouldn’t they have full access to the U.S. labor market too? These home-grown youth will contribute mightily to a gaping hole in our future labor force.

For the same strategic reasons that we want to open doors to high skilled immigrants trained in U.S. universities we should also ensure that immigrant students educated in U.S. public schools have an opportunity to move to the next level, whether it is a college education or a stint in the military.

We all should be concerned about overhauling our immigration system so that it is more secure, fair and economically strategic. Passage of the DREAM Act would have been a practical step in the right direction.

  • 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.