Waiting on passage of DREAM Act is gambling with the nation's soul

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I used to believe that clearing up the skilled-immigrant backlog and creating a startup visa should be Congress’ top legislative priorities. This is what I focused on in my book, “Immigrant Exodus.”

If you had told me a documentary could shift my mindset, I would have said you were crazy. That was before I watched “Documented” — a film that made me realize there is a piece of legislation even more desperately in need of passage: the DREAM Act.

There are an estimated 1.8 million children in the United States who could be classified as “illegal immigrants,” according to the Immigration Policy Center. They didn’t knowingly break any laws. Their parents brought them to this country to give them a better future.

These “DREAMers” as they are called, grew up as Americans, believing they were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as their friends. But, because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society — as second-class human beings with limits on where they can work and study, and what they can do.

This is unconscionable in a country that prides itself on being a champion of human rights.

This reality was brought to life for me in the film by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant brought to this country when he was 12 years old. Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for a story he co-wrote while working at The Washington Post in 2007, and he made headlines two years ago by revealing in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant.

In “Documented,” Vargas tells of how he didn’t know he was illegal until he was 16, when he went to apply for a driver’s license. He lived, from that point on, in constant fear of being deported. At every turn, through his days at school and his rise through the ranks of journalism, he would have to lie about his status.

Most troublesome was the way he was cut off from his mother, who sent him away to live with his grandparents in America. He couldn’t travel back to the Philippines and she couldn’t get a visa to travel to America. So, for over 20 years, they drifted apart.

Vargas’ story changed me, giving me a clearer window on the life of an illegal immigrant. His story and the manner in which it is told makes you better understand their emotions and hardships.

I hope all of our political leaders watch this film. They need to understand that skilled immigration is an economic issue that is directly tied to the health of our economy.

But this is about more than the economy: providing basic human rights to the millions of undocumented children who live in the shadows of U.S. society is something we must do to heal the soul of this nation.

Comprehensive immigration reform is caught in the quagmire of partisan politics. At best, the odds are 50-50 that any legislation will pass. It is bad enough we are gambling with the economic future of this country. Let’s not gamble with the lives of its DREAMers.

Congress should approve the DREAM Act as a down payment. This can’t wait.

Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.

Comments

PearlY 1 year, 2 months ago

Our immigration laws are too restrictive and cumbersome, but their wholesale violation is not an option, and rewarding that violation will get us more of it.

Would the DREAM Act permit Mr. Vargas, once naturalized, to petition for his mother's, father's and siblings' admissions to the U.S.? Even though it is not his fault that his mother and grandparents violated the law to get him here for "a better life", surely it is his parents' fault and it should be enough of a reward that their criminality got what they wanted for him.

Mr. Vargas's situation is a classic dilemma. He was not to blame for coming here, and it would be harsh to blame him for doing what he can to stay once his life was here (although that has required him to break any number of laws since adulthood including, probably, multiple counts of perjury).

Yet when law-breaking is rewarded with success, you get more of it. If there are 1.8 million undocumented aliens brought here as children, how many more children are there abroad, whose parents also would like to give them a better life in America and will see the DREAM Act as an inducement and encouragement to violate our immigration laws? At a typical cost of over $15,000 a year just to provide free education and health care to each of these children just through high school, how many of these children can we afford to import? Another 1.8 million ($27 billion a year)? 18 million ($270 billion a year)? There are roughly 1.8 billion children under the age of 18 in the world. 18 million is just 1%. What are the chances that that many have parents who would like to send them here for a better life?

And what of their employment prospects as young adults? Or do we also send them all to college before setting them to compete with our already underemployed citizenry?

If a parent lies about her address on a school enrollment form to send her child to a better public school or uses a grandparent's address to secure that enrollment, and is found out, she is likely to be prosecuted for theft or fraud, sent a bill for the cost of her child's education so far, and her completely innocent child will surely be summarily expelled from that school. Is that child guilty of anything? No, but nevertheless, the child is not allowed to receive the benefit of the parent's lie, because we all know what would happen: We'd get more lying parents invading better school districts to give their children a better life.

Unless some other way can be found to temper the rewards of the DREAM Act, it WILL generate more problems in the future. At a minimum, the parents who brought the child here unlawfully should be barred from entry through the child's petition. Maybe prosecution for fraud or theft should be part of the package as well.

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