Wednesday, March 26, 2008

This American DREAM (Act)

I've been listening to episodes of This American Life as part of my morning routine recently: turn on the coffee pot, start an episode, and listen to little excerpts of other people's lives while drinking my coffee and brushing my teeth. It was today's choice of episodes, entitled Nice Work if You Can Get It (first aired on March 21st), that I learned of the DREAM Act through the sad story of Martha. Martha (not her real name) is a young woman who seems to be what every parent hopes their children might become - smart, hard-working, dedicated to helping others, and motivated. She wants to become a doctor - an OBGYN. She has earned excellent grades at UCLA, even though it meant sleeping at the library and showering in the locker room for weeks at a time (she could not afford housing near the campus). She also has an unpaid internship in medical research and all the community service activities that would make her an ideal med school candidate. Yet, since Martha was not born in the States, but was brought here from Mexico by her parents when she was a child, there is no path to legal status for her. She cannot apply for grants, student loans, work study, or scholarships. Even were she to find a way to pay for medical school, she could never be employed as a doctor in this country. She lives in a perpetual state of limbo - the United States being the only country she has known since early childhood, but without any way to truly participate in or contribute to the society that has raised her.

Martha's story sounded familiar to me since I have known several young people in her position - kids that work hard despite being fairly sure that they will never be able to attain the types of jobs that their intellects would earn them, had they the proper paperwork. Yet, there might be a possible solution, if we had the political will to make things better for these kids. We could pass the DREAM Act.

The DREM Act (aka. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is the latest incarnation of a series of bills that seek to give some legal status to "young people who were brought to the U.S. years ago as undocumented immigrant children who have since grown up here, stayed in school, and kept out of trouble" and wish to attend college or join the U.S. Armed Forces. As Wikipedia explains:
Currently, children who immigrate to the United States from another country can only obtain legal status through their parents; there is no independent method to accomplish this. Through many quirks in immigration law many individuals brought here as children remain without permanent status, despite having parents or spouses who are naturalized citizens or legal permanent residents. If a child is brought into the country illegally there is no method of becoming a legal resident. Returning to their country would not guarantee a path to legal status. Attempts to come back legally are often difficult, with roadblocks such as ten year bans on re-entering the U.S.
The complete lack of any path to citizenship for these children poses a problem for both them and for the United States, since they are blocked from becoming full contributors to the community in which they live. The DREAM Act would provide a path to long-term legal status for those young people. Although the legislation's detractors assert that the DREAM Act's passage would provide a sweeping "amnesty," the bill would not provide a path to legal status for all undocumented children, for:
To qualify for immigration relief under the DREAM Act, a student must have been brought to the U.S. more than 5 years ago when he or she was 15 years old or younger and must be able to demonstrate good moral character.... Under the DREAM Act, once such a student graduates from high school, he or she would be permitted to apply for conditional status, which would authorize up to 6 years of legal residence. During the 6-year period, the student would be required to graduate from a 2-year college,complete at least 2 years toward a 4-year degree, or serve in the U.S. military for at least 2 years. Permanent residence would be granted at the end of the 6-year period if the student has met these requirements and has continued to maintain good moral character.
The bill has been introduced in various forms in both the House and the Senate, but has faced strong opposition each time. Most recently, it was brought up for debate on the floor of the Senate in October of 2007, yet "...though it was able to gain a majority vote it failed to gain cloture by a 52-44 vote, 8 votes short of overcoming a filibuster." Both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama voted in favor of the DREAM Act, Sen. McCain abstained from voting. The White House issued a statement against the DREAM Act before the 2007 vote.

The future of this legislation is uncertain, the Democratic leadership having stated that:
..the DREAM Act is unlikely to be considered until 2009. However, the Democratic leadership has also stated their refusal to consider H1B visa reform (a high-skill temporary visa program)unless the DREAM Act is first passed, leaving an opening for the issue to be addressed sooner.
In the meantime, kids like Martha will continue to study hard and work towards goals that they have been told they can never attain, hoping for the chance to give back to the country that they consider their home.


Casmall said...

I'm always amazed how difficult we make it for hard working people to come to this country- it borders on spite.

La Pobre Habladora said...

If the discussion were truly about how to best manage our resources for our people and for those who wish to become citizens, if it were truly about how to best manage the bureaucratic process as to ensure a fair chance to all immigrants - well, that wouldn't be so discouraging. Yet, from everything I've seen, there is a lot of racism that enters the debate. It is amazing how much poor, uneducated people of one nation can loathe people in their situation who are from other nations. More amazing, however, is how much politicians take those baseless fears and intolerances into account when they make policy decisions.

Mächtige Maus said...

LPH, your comment intrigues me. I think I always end up with the feeling that the baseless fear and intolerance is coming from the disenfranchised, which is not inherently the same as poor and uneducated.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Well, you got me - lots of people are bigots who fear of super-slight differences between people. Bigotry is not limited to the poor and uneducated. Sadly, it isn't limited to the disenfranchised either. Lots of educated, rich, white, totally empowered people are bigots too - stupidly scared that, if someone else gets any of the rights that have been theirs exclusively, they will somehow lose something.