Reframing the DREAM Act

By Dalia Singleton Gary, staff editor Each year, about 75,000 bright, motivated and talented students graduate from U.S. high schools with an “undocumented” U.S. residence status. This situation provides these students with little hope of higher education or legal employment in the country they call home. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give these students (who meet certain criteria) a path to participation in U.S. colleges, military, employment, and eventually citizenship.

Regrettably, after a nine year journey through Congress, the DREAM Act was most recently stalled in the Senate on September 21, 2010. Attached to a Defense Bill, the act was 4 votes shy of ending a filibuster on the issue.

Proponents of the DREAM Act have mostly emphasized the potential positive impact on the U.S. economy. Advocates have pointed to the DREAM Act as means to secure a return on investment for the “free” K-12 education government has provided for undocumented students. Unfortunately, this strategy has largely been unsuccessful because Americans do not see any immediate gain for themselves. Although improving the economy is good, for most Americans, it is not as significant as the sudden competition from recently legalized immigrants for jobs and college acceptances.

Several groups have successfully opposed the DREAM Act, primarily on the basis that it will encourage more illegal immigration and lead to increased competition for jobs and education. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has referred to the DREAM Act as “amnesty” for illegal aliens, claiming that it rewards parents who violated immigration laws through their children, and provides an incentive for more illegal immigration.

In order to garner enough support to pass the DREAM ACT, we must shift the perception away from the economy and immigration and onto education as a civil right. The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board proved our nation’s commitment to ensuring the right to education, even for the most marginalized members of society. In this respect, times have changed only in that the “standard” level of education acceptable for members of our society is increasingly becoming a college degree.

At present, there is considerable public momentum behind education reform. Look at the examples of the recently released film, Waiting for “Superman” and its preview on Oprah, Obama’s Race to the Top program encouraging innovations in state school systems, and NBC’s Education Nation a nationally broadcasted discussion about improving the U.S. education system.  The failures of the “system” to produce high levels of student achievement have attracted mainstream interest.

Riding the coattails of this movement would likely prove successful for the DREAM Act. In the absence of the DREAM Act, the talent of undocumented students is wasted. Currently, only 5-10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go to college. This is undoubtedly reducing our nation’s overall graduation rate and can be viewed as a systemic failure that can be remedied by comprehensive education change.

Viewing the DREAM Act as a solution to failure in the education system also aligns the fate of undocumented students with “our own” children. These types of symbolic images are often very successful, particularly with middle class who most strongly oppose the Act on the basis of increased competition for jobs and education.  This broader scope could also gain stronger support from powerful interest groups such as the National Education Association, Teacher’s Unions and family focused groups.

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