Choosing Fear Over Dreams: Legal Path for Immigrant Students in Limbo

Michelle Chen

Young activists push for the DREAM Act in April 2010.

News headlines across the country today will feature politicians lamenting the state of public education, complaining that the de-skilling” of the American workforce is eroding its global competitiveness,” stressing the need to boost college graduation rates and to close the achievement gap.

Flip the page, and you’ll read about lawmakers militantly rejecting a policy that would create a more skilled workforce, enable thousands of upward striving students to obtain a college degree, and prevent poor youth of color from dropping out of high school and into low-wage jobs. That cognitive dissonance is at the heart of the debate over the DREAM Act, which would open a path to legalization for undocumented immigrant youth. Many have spent virtually their whole lives in the U.S., some are stellar students.

The bill—passed by the House and slated for a Senate vote within days — would allow students to work toward citizenship by pursuing a college education or joining the military and complying with other regulations. The law is not perfect, and even if passed, would patch up just one small partt of the immigration crisis. But in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, activists rallied around the bill in hopes that it will be a first milestone in the long battle for a just immigration policy.

The Center for American Progress crunched the numbers and discovered a hidden stimulus package in the legislation (plus a hefty deficit reduction):

No formal data exists on the exact educational pursuits of these students, but reasonable projections can be made. Latinos, for example, who make up the largest population of undocumented students, were awarded 36,402 degrees in technical fields in 2006 (31.5 percent of total Latino college degrees) according to data from the NSF.

We can roughly estimate, then, that passing the DREAM Act could add as many as 252,000 new scientists, engineers, and technical workers to this country’s critically thin supply. Conversely, failing to pass the bill would rob this country of a critical mass of brain power and technological innovation. An undocumented scientist or engineer has little to no hope of finding a job in their field of expertise — a travesty given their extraordinary sacrifice and intellectual potential.

But according to anti-immigrant hardliners, these model citizens in waiting hardly deserve a backdoor to amnesty.” That would erode the integrity of our immigration law, right? After all, writes Heather Mac Donald at National Review, the student could have spent five years in remedial classes and the next five accumulating a year’s worth of credits in Chicano/​a studies.” People like that couldn’t possibly benefit America’s economy, could they?

Rather, opponents contend, propping up an obsolete and abuse-ridden immigration system is far more valuable to the nation than educating bright students who’ve overcome every sort of legal and economic obstacle in pursuit of a good future.

Ironically, the struggle for the DREAM Act coincides with a psychological slump among young people. Disillusioned by the endless economic crisis, an entire generation of fresh college graduates are retiring to their parents’ basements as their diplomas and resumes gather dust.

The so-called DREAM’ers, the youth who have donned wishful graduation caps at rallies in support of the bill, are an island of optimism in this ocean of cynicism. Many of them fear being deported to a country they’ve never known, possibly facing poverty or persecution. But more just want to walk with their class on graduation day, to become the only doctor serving their neighborhood, or just to make their parents proud. The only thing standing in their way is a handful of senators.

To activists who regularly criticize government policies, the DREAM Act campaigners’ rhetoric may seem naive at a time of intense economic uncertainty. But behind the DREAM’ers relentless motivation is an uncompromising resolve to redeem the opportunities provided them; they played by the rules in school and just want their work to pay off.

While tremendous economic stagnation persists and jobs migrate to cheaper shores, some politicians defy logic, and history, by rejecting a chance to allow immigration to reinvigorate the labor force and fuel industries.

Today, countless undocumented immigrants are turning out to be better schooled in the American Dream than the restrictionists grumbling on Capitol Hill. If the DREAM Act fails, it will present a devastating lesson to America’s youth: the country has not only has ceased to be the land of opportunity, but now punishes its children for daring to believe in that promise.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Brandon Johnson
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Get the whole story: Subscribe to In These Times magazine.