18. The Dream Act: A Flawed Patch for the Cracked and Pothole-Filled Road to Citizenship

Author: Jack Doyle, First Year

For a piece of legislation like the DREAM Act to work effectively, it would have to provide multiple paths to citizenship while making sure these paths are easily accessible to immigrants.  A support structure would have to be proposed that helps the immigrants integrate, become proficient in English, and overcome the social, administrative, and cultural barriers that may get in their way.  At the same time, it would have to provide measures for swaying public opinion in favor of educated, skilled immigrants and away from the ideas that immigrants steal valuable jobs and leech from the government.  Along with doing all of this, it would have to provide financial measures to ensure that immigrants can afford the path to citizenship while also ensuring the process does not cost the government billions of dollars.  As it currently stands, the DREAM Act has many flaws that prevent it from achieving this ideal vision.  The Act offers pathways to citizenship focused on education and military service, neglecting other ways that immigrants could be beneficial to American society.  While it promotes education, the Act does not ensure immigrants have the English mastery needed for schooling.  The Act also has no financial measures to help immigrants afford an education and relieve the government of the costs incurred supporting illegal immigrants.  The DREAM Act does not sway Americans’ perspectives to favor immigrants or comfort those who feel immigrants threaten American culture, thus leaving room for severe tension between immigrants and native-born Americans.  The DREAM Act’s plan to establish an effective path to citizenship for illegal immigrant children is far from ideal due to its narrow focus on education and military service as well as the lack of support provided for the children; however, the addition of financial plans to offset immigrant education costs, a broadening of the bill’s focus to include employment and expertise as pathways to citizenship, and the creation of a strong support system for children could greatly increase the effectiveness of the legislation.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners migrate to the United States each year for many poverty, economic, personal, and health reasons, but the DREAM Act has a bias for those who immigrate due to educational reasons.  The Civil Society’s website lists many motivations for immigration to the United States.  One of these motivations is poverty; many immigrants are escaping the crushing poverty of their former countries.  Another motivation listed is economic advantage.  Many immigrants come to America in search of better job opportunities that are more advanced and pay more than those in their home country.  Others still come for personal reasons including: to live with their families, to gain access to better healthcare, and to acquire the personal liberties granted to Americans (Civil Society).  Some groups claim that America itself is a cause of immigration to the States.  In  a recent report, the Public Citizen Organization claimed that failed trade policies of the United States (such as NAFTA) have created terrible economic conditions in Mexico that force some Mexican farmers to immigrate to the U.S. (Public Citizen 2013). Understanding these motivations is important for understanding how immigrants will perform in American society and for producing good legislation regarding immigration reform.  A 2010 study produced by the Journal of Social Issues looked at how parents’ motivation for immigrating affected their children’s academic performances.  Immigrant children whose parents came over for educational reasons were more likely to have higher GPAs, while those whose parents came over for employment opportunities were more likely to have a rapid decline in GPA throughout high school (Larsen 2011).  The DREAM Act favors the children of those who came to the United States for educational purposes by making education a requirement for citizenship – a requirement most likely to be met by those with higher GPAs and a greater motivation to pursue education.  It provides no means by which employment or skill can gain an immigrant child citizenship.  This bias leads to certain children having an easier path to citizenship than others, which might lead to some children not gaining citizenship and remaining illegal.  As a result, the U.S. would lose valuable potential citizens and have to support more illegal immigrants than if the DREAM Act had no bias.  If the United States wants to grant citizenship to those who are most willing to work hard, become skilled laborers, and be economic assets to the country, it needs to provide options for children of motivated immigrants who might focus on something other than education.

While the DREAM Act provides motivation for immigrant children to get an education, it does nothing to remove the barriers preventing them from doing so or to alleviate the financial burden that immigrant children pose to the education system.  A report by the Foundation of Child Development shows that 45% of undocumented immigrants fail to reach the status of a high school graduate, and only 19% ever acquire a college degree (Capps 2004).  This data can make one think that illegal immigrants just do not put the same effort into schooling that Americans do, because many venues exist through which all people in the U.S. can get an education.  At the same time, one can see that many barriers stand in the way of immigrants obtaining a good education.  Along with monetary, linguistic, administrative, and political barriers, immigrants are obstructed by the American people themselves.  A recent Gallup Poll found that 55% of Americans oppose providing free public education to illegal immigrant children (Bushaw 2013).  These Americans are not without basis for their opposition.  A report by Pew in 2008 showed that illegal immigrant children comprise 6.8% of students grades K-12 in public schools, and these students cost state governments a total of $44.5 billion annually (Izumi 2010).  The cost lies on the backs of legal U.S. taxpayers – not on the backs of the immigrants themselves – who might not be able to easily accommodate the extra costs of illegal immigrant children.  Thus more money is taken from Americans who could make better contributions to their families, their communities, and the economy if they did not have to support illegal immigrants.  While immigrants do face many barriers, the DREAM Act would help solve the issue by giving immigrant children motivation (in the form of citizenship) to strive for a college education.  A report by the Pew Research Center claims that the younger an undocumented immigrant moves to the U.S., the higher the chances of that person gaining a high-level education (Passel 2009).  By targeting immigrant children, the DREAM Act attempts to tap into these younger immigrants who are more likely to attain college educations than their older counterparts, which will lead to more educated, integrated illegals becoming citizens of the United States.  Even though it provides motivation for and supports the younger immigrants, it doesn’t help relieve the other barriers in their way.  Bilingual schools, language mastery programs, and extracurricular programs should be instituted to help these immigrants overcome these barriers and get used to the U.S. education system.  Also, the Act proposes no way by which to decrease the costs that immigrant children incur upon local governments and education systems.  The Act tries to motivate immigrant children to get an education, which leads to more children in school and subsequently more costs for education.  It does not, however, provide a method by which to keep education costs low for these immigrant children, so documented taxpayers would have to pay even more to cover these costs.  Settling these problems would relieve taxpayers of extra monetary strain and improve their views of public education for immigrants, thus making the DREAM Act a more productive piece of legislation.

The financial burden that immigrants put on the education system is only a fraction of the total amount that immigrants cost the government in social services; costs that tax revenue gathered from the DREAM Act’s new citizens could not cover.  According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, immigrants pay a decent amount of taxes.  In 2010, undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $10.6 billion in taxes, which means they paid on average 6.4% of their income.   This is only slightly less than the 7% paid by documented taxpayers (ITEP 2013).  Another report by the Immigration Policy Center estimates that at least half of illegal immigrants pay income tax.  According to the report, $8.4 billion of taxes paid by illegal immigrants was sales tax, which is unavoidable for anyone buying something within the U.S. (IPC 2011).  The ITEP report pushes this a little further by saying that allowing illegal immigrants to work in the U.S. legally would increase their tax output by $2 billion.  This would increase their tax rate to 7%, putting them in line with documented taxpayers (ITEP 2013).  This information shows that undocumented immigrants are currently paying a large amount in taxes (albeit less than actual citizens), and this amount would only increase if they were allowed to work legally in the U.S.  The DREAM Act allows many undocumented immigrants to start work legally, so, according to the information provided in these reports, the DREAM Act would have a positive effect on the tax revenue of the United States government by increasing the amount of legal workers.  But then one must question how much these immigrants cost the government in social welfare.  As stated above, the estimated total tax revenue of illegal immigrants lies near $10.6 billion.  A report by FAIR shows that illegal immigrants cost the federal government approximately $29 billion annually, which is more than double the amount they currently pay in taxes.  At the same time, they also cost state and local governments an estimated $84 billion a year (Martin 2010).  According to the FAIR report, immigrants cost the government approximately $102 billion that they don’t pay back in taxes.  Naturally, this burden falls on documented U.S. taxpayers.  This information betrays a vital flaw in the DREAM Act. Even if illegal immigrants were made into citizens and contributed the extra $2 billion a year, they still would not nearly pay for all of their social welfare benefits.  Compared to the $113 billion that immigrants cost federal and local governments annually, an extra $2 billion contribution to taxes is miniscule and does nothing to help the financial situation.  Even though citizenship in the long run might lower the costs of an immigrant on the U.S. government, no short term solution is proposed by the Act.

Beyond the financial problems surrounding immigrant education and citizenship, the DREAM Act does not address Americans’ concerns about the growing number of non-English speaking people in the U.S. and does not provide sufficient language mastery training for immigrants who need it.  The 2000 Census showed that 21 million people in the United States do not speak English well, and this number is up from 14 million in 1990 (MPI).  Non-English speakers are having communication issues with medical personnel, and many believe that non-English speakers’ language barrier prevents them from passing accurate decisions on juries (Davenport 2013).  These problems, along with many others, have led Americans to believe it is essential for immigrants to learn the English language, as shown by a recent Gallup Poll in which 72% of Americans said immigrants need to learn English.  However, the same poll shows that the amount of Americans who think this has decreased from 77% in 2001 (Jones 2013).  This could show that Americans are becoming more comfortable with non-English speakers.  In a recent Pew Research poll, 70% of Americans believed that children need to learn a foreign language to succeed in the world (Pew 2002).  While Americans want immigrants to learn English, the evidence shows they may be opening up to the idea of a bilingual country.  The DREAM Act, due to its education and military requirements, is bound to be beneficial for both lines of thought when it comes to language in the United States.  By going through a U.S. education or serving in the United States military, immigrant children are sure to learn a great deal of English while retaining their first language.  This would decrease the number of non-English speakers in the U.S. while also providing America with a source of language professors, international business associates, government workers, etc. who have knowledge of multiple languages.  At the same time, however, the Act would not provide language schooling that many immigrant children need.  Some children are not at the level of English proficiency needed to perform successfully in college or the military, so language programs should be established to help bring them to this level.  Without these, many children who have the intelligence and drive to complete college or join the military might be blocked by a language barrier, which would reduce the effectiveness of the Act and the positive benefits that these immigrants can have on American society.

The DREAM Act doesn’t just fail to provide immigrants with lingual aid, but also fails to sway American opinion – which is currently split – away from the idea that immigrants are a burden to American society and toward the idea that they are a benefit.  Polls by Fox News (help: 42%, hurt: 30%), the Wall Street Journal (help: 45%, hurt: 45%), and Pew Research Center (Strengthen the country: 41%, Burden the country: 52%) show that Americans are equally divided between the ideas of immigrants being helpful and immigrants being harmful to America (Pew 2006).  This division can act as a source of tension between Americans when debating the topic of immigration, and it could mean that internal strife will appear no matter what legislation is put in place.  However, it could also mean that Americans are at a swinging point; a majority could be persuaded to support or oppose immigration.  The majority of Americans believe that immigrants should be allowed to stay if they follow a set procedure to become permanent residents and continue to contribute to the economy (Pew 2006).  If Americans could be ensured that immigrants are substantial contributors to the economy and pay their fair share of public expenses, their opinions would change drastically.  This would lead to greater immigrant acceptance in American society, less workplace discrimination against immigrants, and possibly greater economic opportunities.  This makes it seem like most Americans would approve of the DREAM Act, because it gives some illegals a path to citizenship while also ensuring that those who become citizens are educated and will be good contributors to the economy.  However, this is the only thing the Act is doing.  Measures would have to be taken to promote acceptance, and costs for these measures would have to be covered by the legislation.  Also, the Act does not actively promote individual responsibility among immigrants.  It takes a step by requiring them to get an education or serve in the military, but it makes no attempts to wean them off government programs or make them accept responsibility within their communities.  Currently in Germany, the German government is trying to take care of this issue by cracking down on elitist groups, promoting the idea that immigrants are a vital part of Germany, establishing effective education for immigrant children, and ensuring that immigrants are productive part of the German workforce.  While the government performs these solutions, the general German population is slowly becoming more accepting of immigrants, and the immigrants are becoming major contributors to Germany’s booming economy (Kern 2010).  Perhaps such efforts on the part of the U.S. government and DREAM Act could produce the same effects within the United States, but as of now those efforts are not being taken.

Americans are also split when it comes to deciding whether immigrants enrich American culture or threaten it, and this could pose problems for the DREAM Act, which would lead to immigrants with different cultures becoming citizens while only partially Americanizing them.  Americans are decisively split on the topic of immigrants in relation to American culture, with half believing they strengthen American society, and the other half believing they are threatening traditional American values.  A poll released by the Brookings Institution shows that a slight majority of Americans (54%) believe immigrants strengthen American society (Jones 2013).  This shows that a large portion of Americans do not feel threatened by immigrant culture, which means they might be more open to immigrant citizens.  However, a Pew Research poll found that location plays a large role in determining what an American believes about immigrants.  The poll shows that in areas with high and medium concentrations of foreign born people, 48% of Americans believe immigrants strengthen American society and 47% believe they threaten traditional American customs.  These higher concentration areas are much more likely to think that immigration is a big problem in their community.  For areas with low concentrations, the populations were not so split, with 33% believing immigrants strengthen society and 60% believing they threaten society (Pew 2006).  This data shows that the presence of immigrants in a community has a large positive impact on the ideas about immigrants that community members have.  This could show that exposure to immigrants causes Americans to think more positively of their impact on American society, because they see firsthand how culturally beneficial immigrants are.  At the same time, however, the increased opinion could be the result of the fact that communities with more immigrant members have a higher number of immigrants responding to the poll.  If this is the case, it makes sense that the immigrants would vote in favor of immigrant culture.  The variance in opinion among Americans expressed by these two polls shows just how split Americans are over this issue.  This can create a tense situation, because there is no clear majority, and any legislation that supports one side would be met with aggression by those who support the other.  Therefore, it is a good thing that the DREAM Act caters to both sides by encouraging the naturalization of illegal immigrant children (thus bringing their cultures out from the shadows and into public American society) while also putting the children through an education system that will help Americanize them.  At the same time, the DREAM Act’s apparent neutrality is also a fault, because it does not provide a definitive solution for the problems posed by both sides of the debate; it only solves a few from each side.  This leaves room for future tensions and debates that might bring immigration back to the forefront of American politics.  To prevent this, the DREAM Act must either enact measures to comfort those who believe immigrants are a threat to American culture or to more fully integrate immigrants, thus eliminating the perceived threat.

While American opinions are split, immigrant opinions are united about wanting to naturalize; however, financial, lingual, and cultural barriers contribute to immigrants’ struggle for citizenship, and the DREAM Act does nothing to help alleviate these barriers.  When asked about the subject of becoming naturalized citizens, non-citizen, Hispanic immigrants overwhelmingly answered in favor of the idea.  A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 93% of Hispanic non-citizens would like to become U.S. citizens.  Of the illegal immigrants polled, 92% wanted to become citizens (Lopez 2013).  This information is promising; if the immigrants themselves want to become citizens, then any reasonable naturalization policy should be well received and followed by the immigrants.  Even though an overwhelming majority of immigrants want to become citizens, the amount that actually do is quite small.  Only 46% of Hispanic immigrants eligible to naturalize have, which is startling, seeing that 93% wanted to naturalize (Lopez 2013).  This raises the question: why haven’t they naturalized?  The reasons given vary, but in the same survey by Pew, the reasons ranged from language or cultural barriers standing in the way (26%), to financial and administrative barriers preventing them (18%), to immigrants just not being interested or not trying (26%) (Gonzalez-Barrera 2013).  This information shows that desire is not enough to push immigrants to naturalize; practical things such as knowing the English language and the American culture or paying the monetary fine ($680) can get in the way.  The fact that 26% of eligible immigrants have not tried or aren’t interested in naturalizing is confusing seeing that 93% said they wanted to naturalize.  They may think they get more benefits for less by remaining illegal; they pay fewer taxes while still getting many of the same welfare benefits.  The immigrants might also have just lied about their intentions to naturalize.  On the other hand, the lack of interest and trying might be the result of the barriers they face when trying to naturalize.  The hassle that it takes to become a citizen might make immigrants lose interest in going fully through the process and decide to live in the U.S. as a legal resident instead of a citizen.  These barriers are not currently addressed by the DREAM Act; the Act allows for the naturalization of immigrants, but not for their integration.  This is a flaw in the bill, because without integration to accompany citizenship, the immigrants will fail to reach their full potential as citizens.  As integrated citizens, the immigrants will have the ability to become informed voters, culturally attuned workers, and overall better contributors to American society than if they weren’t integrated.  As seen by the immigration situation in Germany, integration is necessary for immigrants to truly be successful and accepted by society.  If no parts of the DREAM Act address integration, it could pose huge problems for immigrants when they try to move into U.S. society.  For the DREAM Act to be good policy, integration needs to be addressed.

While the DREAM Act tries to open up a new avenue for illegal immigrant children to become citizens, it quite obviously fails on multiple levels to achieve an ideal solution.  Whereas an optimal piece of immigration legislation would provide multiple paths to citizenship, provide measures to successfully integrate immigrants, promote acceptance of immigrants among the native population, and ensure that immigrants face no impassable barriers on their way to naturalization, the DREAM Act does not.  Also, the DREAM Act fails to promote individual immigrant responsibility, enact measures offsetting the costs of accepting immigrants into the country, and ensure immigrants will be positive contributors to the U.S. economy.  Due to these flaws, the DREAM Act needs a major overhaul before being put into action.  If these problems go unfixed, the DREAM Act will not only fail to solve the illegal immigrant problem, but may also create more problems by granting insufficiently prepared immigrants  access to a society that is itself unprepared to receive them.  This would not do the immigrants or current U.S. citizens justice, because it creates a risk for tension between the two groups, which is harmful to both sides.  Thus a solution that prepares both immigrants and native citizens for life together in U.S. society is needed, and the DREAM Act just is not that.

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