Why the DREAM Act Should Be Passed, and Why It Won’t
Having recently blogged about what I called the “Muslim PR Problem,” I think this article about the DREAM Act also indicates sort of PR problem with respect to immigration: The Act is a good idea that fails to gain traction with most conservatives not because they fail to recognize its merits, but because they are all too aware of the overarching immigration context and the intentions of lawmakers who view the Act as a tool toward broader amnesty and open immigration objectives.
Friedersdorf is correct when he says the broad consensus of American opinion is to control the borders. This does not mean Americans don’t appreciate a good made-in-the-USA story about a poor immigrant who accedes to great heights in America. This is no mere concession: such stories resonate with Americans’ sense of American exceptionalism, of pride in the American culture, in the particularities of our national, state, and local societies that make ours a different and better society than any other in the world. And it aligns with Booker T. Washington’s views about race in America when he said:
I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community. No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified.
To the extent the DREAM Act applies to those immigrants who are already part of the American society, it is hardly objectionable that they should be also made part of the American citizenry.
However, my initial reaction to the DREAM Act was negative. And I think the last paragraph quoted from Reihan Salam explains why: that the Act “is a wedge strategy designed to begin the process of earned legalization for the large population of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States, and we don’t have the will or the resources for a serious campaign of attrition or repatriation.”
This is where I profoundly break with Friedersdorf, and would disagree that his view represents the “broad consensus”: This is not “a persuasive argument for passing the legislation.” To the contrary, the very possibility of amnesty for all illegal aliens—rather than the ones who have demonstrated they have embraced our American community and have been integrated into it, such that both us and them would be harmed by extricating them from it—is the reason why people fear taking even modest steps toward extending citizenship, such as the DREAM Act.
This is a PR problem. Conservatives and moderates know that liberals want amnesty, and thus they suspect that legislation like DREAM is just a clever, tug-of-the-heartstrings way to crack open the barn door to get at that ultimate goal. Thus, for those of us in the “broad consensus” on immigration, all the “won’t somebody please think about the children” rhetoric sounds fishy: If we’re truly meant to think about the children, then why stop with the smart ones or the ones willing to serve in the military? Why not all of them? Democrats do not extol the importance of American culture and community because this is clearly not what’s important to them. Their end-game is amnesty for all immigrants, even those who have not demonstrated they have the ability or desire to become part of American society in anything by a positive legal sense. Thus, Democrats’ “think about the children” rhetoric disserves the Act because it tips its principal proponents’ hand to their ultimate, troublesome goal of wholesale amnesty.
Instead, I think the right way to go here is to take the DREAM Act’s distinction seriously: not only are there certain kinds of illegal immigrants who should be given a path to citizenship because they have already made themselves integral to our communities, but there are other kinds of illegal immigrants to whom amnesty should not be extended precisely because they have not made themselves integral to our communities. While folks might not be able to change whether they are “foreign” to our laws, they can change whether they remain “foreign” to our society. That kernel of truth is what appeals to the “broad consensus” of Americans about the DREAM Act. Yet, that consensus also still sees that Act as a ploy in liberals’ immigration agenda. And that is why it failed to gain the even broader consensus it deserves.