Rethinking the DREAM Act

Behind the Latest Version of the DREAM Act:
Is This Legislation We Should Support?

By ALEJANDRA JUAREZ

"When that [DREAM Act] passes, millions of children will be able to get the education they need to contribute to our economy," stated Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) during his press conference announcing that he would include the DREAM Act in the Defense Authorization Bill on September 21. Almost immediately, Republican leaders came out against the move in spite of the commonly held belief that the DREAM Act is bipartisan legislation. "I intend to block it, unless they agree to remove the onerous provisions," said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

While Republicans are accusing Democrats of playing partisan politics in an effort to maintain their footing this coming November, mobilizations have been taking place across the nation for months now in an attempt to get Congress and the Obama administration to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR). Immigrant youth, especially, have trekked across state lines, protested in congresspersons' offices, and flooded Congress with letters urging them to pass the DREAM Act. Called DREAMers, they have come out and risked being deported in the hope of gaining legal status.

What is the DREAM Act?

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has been floating in Congress for nearly a decade now, first introduced in 2001 as H.R. 1918 and S. 1291 in the House and Senate respectively. In 2007 Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) filed to place the DREAM Act as an amendment to the 2008 Department of Defense Authorization Bill (S. 2919), but it failed to pass. A last-ditch effort was made later that year by introducing the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill, nevertheless, the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster were not there.

The version now being included as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill by Sen. Reid was introduced in March of 2009 by senators Durbin (D-IL), Lugar (R-IN), Reid (D- NV), Martinez (R-FL), Leahy (D-VT), Lieberman (I-CT), Kennedy (D-MA), and Feingold (D-WI).

If passed, the DREAM Act of 2009 would give young undocumented immigrants from any country of origin who are under 35 years old and who arrived in the United States before age 16 the opportunity to gain legal status by either attending college or joining the military. However, only those who have obtained a high school diploma or GED and have not left the United States in the last five years are eligible to gain conditional Legal Permanent Residency (LPR).

Once eligibility has been ascertained, LPR status would be granted on a conditional basis and valid for six years, during which time the student would be allowed to work, go to school, or join the military. After six years, if the person has shown good moral character and either completed a minimum of two years of higher education toward a bachelor's degree or higher, or served in the military for two years, the conditional status would be removed and full LPR would be granted.

With any chance of passing CIR now declared dead by many Democratic leaders, including President Obama, we are being told the DREAM Act is Plan B , the only viable proposal for addressing the immigration issue. Just last week Univision's Jorge Ramos proclaimed that there will be no legalization for the 11 million undocumented this year. Nor, perhaps, next year — nor the next. Senator Reid, himself, said, "I know we can't do comprehensive immigration reform — I've tried to. I've tried so very, very hard."

A Rift Has Developed

But although the DREAM Act has unconditional supporters in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and other Latino organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), in particular, a rift has begun to appear within the movement that has emerged around the DREAM Act.

Community groups like San Diego's Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (COMD) has opposed the armed forces provision of the DREAM Act for years. More recently, even the young activists who have participated in acts of civil disobedience across the country have not only questioned the military component but the way in which the Democrats are contributing to the argument that the parents are criminals who broke the law by crossing the border illegally in an attempt to provide a better life for their children. "They are vilifying and criminalizing our parents and [arguing] that undocumented students shouldn't pay for the sins or illegal behavior of their parents," wrote Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa, one of the protesters arrested at Sen. McCain's office in Arizona this summer.

Still, the majority in the movement uncritically supports the DREAM Act because they believe its passage will benefit millions of young undocumented immigrants while also serving as a stepping stone for CIR down the road. If we examine the legislation closely, however, some issues arise with these arguments.

First, the simple fact that Democrats are attaching the DREAM Act to the defense bill speaks to its militaristic orientation; the DREAM Act forms part of the Department of Defense's FY2010-12 Strategic Plan to help the military shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.

According to UC San Diego professor Jorge Mariscal, the DREAM Act was largely developed by the Pentagon. One need only read Senator Durbin's testimony. It was not about education. It was strictly about making a pool of young, bilingual, U.S.-educated, high-achieving students available to the recruiters.

This is further evidenced in the 2009 policy report "Essential to the Fight: Immigrants in the Military Eight Years After 9/11," authored by Margaret D. Stock, retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. In it she writes, "Despite the important contributions of immigrants to the military in the ongoing conflicts, one proposal that would allow more immigrants to serve in the armed forces [DREAM Act] has made little headway in the past eight years. … Because attending college is a very expensive proposition, … joining the armed forces is a likely choice for many of the young people who would be affected by the bill (p. 8).

Stock concludes, "Without them, the military could not meet its recruiting goals and could not fill the need for foreign-language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts. Given the unique and valuable functions that immigrants often perform in the military, they are a critical asset to the national defense. Immigrants have been and continue to be essential to the fight" (p. 11).

At the same time, by attempting to pass the DREAM Act before the November mid-term elections, Democrats seek to rally support from Latinos who comprise the largest sector of the immigrant community and who are a key voting bloc for the Democratic Party.

It was this voting bloc that handed Obama the presidency in 2008, based largely on the promise that he would deliver CIR during his first year in office. Having failed to do so — and, on the contrary, having increased the repression on the undocumented community through raids, employer sanctions, and the militarization of the border — more and more Latinos have grown increasingly discontented with the Democratic leadership.

It is difficult to imagine a Democratic victory in Congress without the Latino vote. The Democrats know this and are offering the DREAM Act as appeasement, claiming there is no political will to pass CIR. Yet, it took no effort to pass the $600 million border militarization bill this past August.

Other Objections

Second, according to Sen. Reid and other proponents, passage of the DREAM Act would benefit millions of undocumented immigrants. Although it is difficult to know the exact number of undocumented youth in the United States, the Migration Policy Institute's 2010 study "Dream vs. Reality: An Analysis of Potential DREAM Act Beneficiaries" claims that there are approximately 2.1 million who could potentially be eligible.

However, not all would qualify for LPR status. Only an estimated 825,000, or 38%, would be able to gain full LPR. For those undocumented youths who do not meet the requirements after the six years of conditional status there is no guaranteed that they would not be deported. The legislation also authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to share information with other law enforcement agencies.

Third, the choice of attending an institution of higher learning, as opposed to joining the military, in order to qualify for LPR is only feasible for a small number of undocumented youth. For example, Latinos in general, compared to other ethnic groups have the lowest number of college attendees — only 1.9%, compared to 3% for Blacks, 3.8% for whites, and 8.8% for Asians. The national high school drop-out rate among Latinos is around 40%. In California the drop-out rate is 36%.

Moreover, a significant percentage of the 1.5 generation coming to the United States without papers arrive with very little schooling and come to work to contribute to the family income. These undocumented youth would not even qualify for conditional LPR status.

The college option of the DREAM Act must also be looked at within the new higher education framework where the cost of attending college becomes another barrier. Throughout the country — and in California especially — the tuition or university fees at public universities have skyrocketed … a whopping 32% increase at the UCs and CSUs last year and 54% at community colleges; not to mention the cap enrollments and repeal of affirmative action also affecting ethnic minorities.

Under the DREAM Act students would not be eligible for federal financial aid — only loans and work study. Moreover, the DREAM Act gives states the prerogative to decide if these students qualify for in-state tuition (repealing Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996).

De-Facto Choice to Gain LPR Status

The military option then becomes the de-facto choice to gain LPR status for most undocumented youth. There are already non-citizens in the armed service who are seeking citizenship for themselves and their loved ones through fast track established by former President Bush in 2002 as part of the War on Terror.

However, as Professor Mariscal points out, the promise of a green card is not always assured. Military service does not guarantee citizenship and tragically for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, posthumous citizenship [is] a purely symbolic gesture with no rights or privileges accruing to the deceased person's family.

With the continued occupations in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, it is very likely that those joining the military under the DREAM Act will see combat. And although the DREAM Act asks for only two years of military service, we must be aware that there is no such thing as a two-year military contract. In 2003 Congress passed the National Call to Service Plan as part of the Military Appropriations Act. This mandated that all of the services must create an enlistment program offering a two-year active duty enlistment option, followed by four years in the Active Guard/Reserves, followed by two years in the Inactive Reserves. This is a total of eight years.

If that were not enough, low-income and youth of color tend to see most of the direct combat. Professor Mariscal writes, "Latinos and Latinas are bunched together in the private and corporal ranks (or lowest ranks) and therefore are among the most likely to receive hazardous duty assignments. … [In 2001 they] made up 17.7% of the Infantry, Gun Crews, and Seamanship occupations in all the service branches. Of those Latinos and Latinas in the Army, 24.7% occupy such jobs and in the Marine Corps, 19.7%.

It is important to remember that Latinos make up only 13.5% of the general population. In contrast, in the elite and most highly romanticized military special operations units such as the Navy Seals, people of color are virtually non-existent given the stricter educational admissions criteria.

For a DREAM Act With No Military Strings Attached!

The DREAMers and the movement they have built together with their allies have fueled the immigrant rights movement in spite of other setbacks like SB 1070. Undocumented youth are tired of the vast inequities and limited opportunities afforded to them because of their citizenship status.

Although the DREAM Act would only benefit a small number of undocumented immigrant youth, what the DREAMers are fighting for — the right to education for all, the right to have a job that helps our families get out of poverty, the right to live without fear of incarceration and deportation, the right to keep families together — is the right thing.

All of us in the immigrant rights movement and our allies should applaud and support their cause and denounce the Democrats for attempting to usurp the struggle. We should not be asked to assist in the continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or in any new militaristic adventures in Latin America, Iran, or elsewhere in order to obtain papers for our immigrant brothers and sisters. Nor should we have to subjugate those who look like us in foreign lands or on the border.

We in the immigrant community are not discouraged by the lack of political will in Washington. We will continue to fight for a new and just immigration policy based on human and workers' rights.
More than ever, it is necessary to (re)build an independent mass movement for legalization. It will take huge mobilizations and strikes like those that took place in the spring of 2006 to force the ruling elite to grant our just demands.

We must champion the DREAMers movement — that is, a real DREAM Act without any militaristic strings attached — while also calling for:

– No to the militarization of the border; tear down the Wall of Shame!
– Stop the raids and deportations!
– No to the E-Verify Law and to the criminalization of immigrant workers!
– No to Guest Worker Programs!
– No to the separation of immigrant families!
– Repeal the "Free Trade" and Military pacts in Latin America (including the dismantling of all U.S.
military bases in the region)!

As immigrant rights activist Raul Al-qaraz Ochoa aptly wrote, "Strong movements that achieve greater victories are those that stand in solidarity with all oppressed people of the world."
Posted in Immigration