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Beyond the DREAM Act

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We’ve all heard of the policy centerpiece for immigration-reform proponents, the DREAM Act. The battle over this legislation, which would offer a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, has labored on for more than a decade now; but, rather than being enacted, the bill has failed repeatedly. Sadly, the legislative battle has stoked animosity instead of intelligent dialogue between opponents and proponents of immigration reform and hardened the resolve of both sides.

DREAM Act applicants would need to have entered the United States prior to age sixteen and resided in the country for at least five years. Then, during a six-year period of temporary legal residency, they would have to complete either a two-year college degree or serve two years in the military before gaining eligibility for permanent resident status.

Recently, one potentially eligible individual confronted Mitt Romney, a candidate in the Republican presidential primary. “Why are you not supporting my dream?” she asked. Romney, who has vowed to veto the legislation and earned the title of “enemigo de los soñadores” (enemy of the dreamers), replied that he could not support illegal immigration. The questioner then publicly accused Romney of not supporting immigration at all.

So, what resulted, other than the clip of this confrontation becoming popular on YouTube? Is Romney going to back down? Hardly. Additionally, given that he continues to preach the benefits of legal immigration, he and his supporters are likely to dismiss such attacks as coming from ill-informed individuals.

Isn’t this interplay familiar and predictable? One person argues for legal immigration only — ignoring that the legal process is arbitrary, onerous, and wasteful — while the other attacks back viciously as though respect for a legal process means scorn for all immigrants.

For those who seek a truly open immigration policy, the DREAM Act does not appear to be bringing us any closer to that outcome. That is because the legislation does not address the underlying problem — the legal immigration process — and because the heated argument over it impedes an elevated dialogue.

Regardless of whether or not you favor passage of the DREAM Act, ten years of failure suggest that a more nuanced approach is in order, one that focuses on public understanding.

Even if Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, which seems very unlikely at this point, its requirements mean that less than one million individuals would benefit. So it would at best aid a small minority of the roughly 10 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Further, the limitations of the DREAM Act perpetuate the false notion that immigration ought to be government managed and that only select people merit welcome. What about the dreams of people who arrive here when they are older than 15? What about those who happen to work in industries that do not require a college degree? These individuals are no less valuable as human beings seeking to better their lives, but the DREAM legislation implies the opposite.

The fact is that a candidate like Romney takes his position because it is in line with public opinion in the United States. A majority of United States voters oppose the DREAM Act, and until that changes, only a minority of politicians are going to get on board and support it.

On the other hand, a majority of Americans believe that increased immigration strengthens the community and want to retain birthright citizenship. (They also reject mass deportation as a solution, in favor of some form of legal path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.)

The popularity of those two different positions may seem contradictory. But it indicates a desire both to welcome immigrants and to respect the law. That leaves great leeway for a freeing up of the legal process, but only with the right message and greater public awareness. Fortunately, the facts speak for themselves, and it is only a matter of making them known:

First, the criticism that many Americans have of government intervention applies just as much to immigration controls as to other areas of life. Government officials have no incentive to manage immigration wisely; that is why the legal process continues to be a arbitrary, time-consuming maze. Additionally, even when they try, they fail abysmally — and the more than ten million individuals here without authorization are a testament to that fact.

Secondly, along with being a win-win for our own nation, migration is a humanitarian tool for prosperity in a broader sense. This is because a vote with one’s feet is more powerful than a vote at the ballot box. And since migration follows economic liberty — the American dream — it thus holds oppressive regimes accountable and rewards free societies.

With these two points better understood, American voters will support policies that truly open up U.S. borders after more than a decade of stalemate.

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    Fergus Hodgson is host, editor, and founder of The Stateless Man radio show and e-newsletter and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation.