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DREAMS (AND NIGHTMARES?)

September 20, 2010

The DREAM Act is slated to be offered in the Senate as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.  The DREAM Act is the first piece of legislation seen in a long time to offer legal status and a chance to earn citizenship to anyone currently in the country without legal documentation.

The DREAM Act would apply to children of people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.   The children must have entered the country before they were 16 years old, and they must have completed high school in the U.S., or obtained a GED in the U.S.

Assuming that they are “of good character” and not deportable for a crime or other legal violation, these children of immigrants would qualify for a special status – conditional permanent residency – which would allow them to stay for six years in the U.S.  If they complete two years of college in a program working toward a bachelor’s degree or a higher degree, or if they complete at least two years in military service and leave with an honorable discharge, their conditional permanent residency becomes permanent residency – i.e. they get a “green card” and they can begin working toward citizenship.

For those students who qualify for college entrance, the DREAM Act would provide an incredible boon.  Not only would they be “documented” and therefore eligible to enroll in public institutions, but they would also qualify for some types of federal student aid.  Their worries about imminent deportation would be on hold while they work toward their bachelor’s degree.  After completing two years of education, they qualify to adjust their status to “permanent resident” when the six-year conditional period expires. Eventually, their legal status could enable them to help stabilize their families’ immigration status as well.

The DREAM Act opens a way out of the grinding dilemma faced by students who grew up in this country, know only this country, but have no “papers” to allow them to begin their adult life.  Enabling qualified students to enroll in college allows at least some of the children of immigrants to improve their economic status and to contribute to their families and communities from a position of strength.

For students who do not qualify for college, the DREAM Act creates a huge incentive to join the military.  Military service is not now open to high school graduates who do not have “green cards.” The DREAM Act offers permanent residence status on the condition of completion of two years of military service.  (Most enrollments, of course, are for longer periods than two years, and the DREAM Act requires that a person leave military service with an honorable discharge.  So in reality, the military service option requires more than two years of service.)

The military service option opens the door to heavy pressure on youths in immigrant families to enroll in the military to “make up,” in a way, for their parent’s violation of immigration laws.  The decision to enroll in the military, which is a tough decision for many youth, and tougher for low-income youth, may become almost irresistible for immigrant youth who are not college-bound.

It is not true that the U.S. no longer has a draft.  We have an economic draft.  Young men and women with poorer educations often find themselves with few options other than military service, and once in the military, they often serve in the non-skilled occupations. Often it is these same young men and women who are more vulnerable to death and severe injury.

There is where the nightmare lurks behind the DREAM Act.  It appears every month in the Washington Post and in many local papers around the country, in the photos of the young men and women who lost their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.  While this nation continues to fight ground wars in unstable and violent countries, many service members do not survive to come home.

At one time, there was a community service option in the DREAM Act.  It would have been possible for children of immigrants to perform two years of approved community service, or to attend college, or to enroll in the military as a way to qualify for permanent resident status.  That option does not appear in the bill being considered now.  In fairness, Congress should amend this bill to include the community service option, and to add a vocational training option in order to encompass all of the immigrant youth who arrived in this country under similar circumstances and who approach the end of high school without the “papers” they need for their future.

But the choice Congress faces now is not a choice among amendments.  Should Congress pass the DREAM Act or not?  On balance, we believe that the DREAM Act should pass.  We believe that its implementation will give a chance for a future to thousands of young people who face only locked doors at this time. We believe it will open doors to education for those who might have considered the military as their only viable option.  And we must respect the right of each young person to choose his or her future – whether in college or in the military or in neither institution. And we will continue to work for comprehensive immigration reform to bring answers for the future of all those immigrants who lives are not touched by the DREAM Act.

One Comment
  1. November 6, 2010 7:07 pm

    I am really disappointed with the conclusion and misstatements in this piece.
    Starting with part of the premise that leads to the conclusion of supporting the current language of the DREAM Act:
    “We believe it will open doors to education for those who might have considered the military as their only viable option.”
    Wrong, dead wrong. No one who could benefit from this bill could have enlisted prior to the passage of it. It is currently illegal to enlist without a green card. The military has around 17,000 non citizen soldiers and almost everyone of them had a green card when they enlisted. A look at their experience would shine a big light on what currently undocumented youth can look forward to in the military. When the invasion of Iraq began 4 green card soldiers were among the first week’s casualties. This is an incredibly disproportionate casualty rate. Please understand that undocumented youth who enlist through passage of a DREAM Act will be even more vulnerable than there green card soldier counterparts. One can only expect even more casualties. Spain passed a similar legislation that in the lead up even immigrant advocates embraced. A year into it most Latino Migrant advocate groups in Spain were deeply regretting their support as they saw the drastic number of COlombian and Latino body bags returning. The New York Times covered this story a few weeks back.

    The Migration Policy Institute studied the potential impact of the DREAM Act. They concluded that only 33% of the 2.1 million undocumented youth in the US could potentially access the Educational path to legalization. This means 67% of undocumented youth would see the DREAM Act as DRAFT act which said to them, Join the military or be in trouble with the law. Please understand that in a post passage of the DREAM Act reality being undocumented would be a much more vulnerable reality for these youth. This community would be much more vulnerable to the already growing xenophobic attacks that paint them as criminals, drug runners and such. Now the right would be able to say these are the ones who did not take advantage of the college option… Ignoring the socio economic barriers for undocumented youth of color.

    We can never advocate for the rights of a relatively privileged few at the expense of a devastatingly underprivileged many. If one coerced enlistment leads to death that’s too big a price to pay for one college student’s papers. But the reality is the numbers will be much greater. And of corse we have yet to speak of the price that our brothers and sisters on the other side of the guns pay when we pass a policy that strengthens the US Military and it’s ability to cause harm and death on mass scale. remember that military recruitment despite the economy is down. National Priorities Project estimates 2009 as the lowest number in a decade for Army Recruitment that is why Obama begrudgingly downsized the Iraq occupation and has not been able to grow the presence in the middle east quite as fast as the Generals beg. By providing the DOD with a highly vulnerable pool of over 1.4 million youth to coerce into military service, we guarantee that there will be much more war making and occupying ahead.

    If only our Arab brothers and sisters, had a vote and a voice in our policy making as the main victims of every inch of military expansion.

    Please don’t allow Washington D.C. to define the limits of what people of conscience should demand. We should demand a DREAM Act that reflects the needs and values of the most affected communities. This is what was originally sent to Washington in 2001. It included Pell grant money to make college accessible, a community service option so young undocumented folks have a real choice WITH options, and it did not include a military “option”. Is that really too much to ask for, at the same time the pentagon gets billions and more money each year, even during a recession. Really? If we accept that argument, challenging militarism is something we have given up doing.

    Pablo

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