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Why was the DREAM Act defeated?

November 2, 2007 | Page 5

JUSTIN AKERS CHACÓN and LEE SUSTAR analyze an immigration bill that died in the Senate.

THE IMMIGRANT bashers in the Senate have blocked passage of a law that would have allowed a section of undocumented youth to have a path to citizenship via higher education or military service.

The law, known as the DREAM Act (for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2007), is controversial among immigrant rights activists because it likely would have steered more undocumented young people into the military than into higher education.

But the militarization of immigrant youth wasn't the concern of politicians like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who called for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on a press conference held by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the lead sponsor of the bill.

Tancredo wanted ICE agents to arrest three high school students who appeared with Durbin at the press conference. "Dick can split all the hairs he wants, but we all know the DREAM Act is designed to do one thing: benefit illegal aliens," Tancredo said.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "This or any other type of an amnesty bill would be a slap in the face of all of those who came in legally."

What else to read

For coverage of the politicians' latest effort to pass an immigration law, read the International Socialist Review, including "The immigration debate: New 'compromise' for the employers" by Shaun Harkin and Justin Akers Chacón's "War on immigrants."

Socialist Worker's featured coverage of the immigrant rights movement is collected in an archive "The Fight for Immigrant Rights."

Justin is coauthor, with Mike Davis, of one of the best new books on the politics of immigration and the struggle for justice and equality, read No One Is Illegal: Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border.


The Bush administration, which supported provisions of the DREAM Act when they were included in the failed "comprehensive" immigration bill earlier this year, was also opposed. It called the bill a "preferential path to citizenship for a special class of illegal aliens."

While a majority of Republicans lined up to kill the bill, they were also joined by eight Democrats in voting "no." Three other Democratic senators didn't vote, including Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. As a result, the bill was blocked from further consideration by a 52-44 vote.

But leading Democrats say they will bring the DREAM Act back for consideration in 2009, especially if they win the White House and a greater majority in Congress.

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IN REALITY, the DREAM Act was hardly the "preferential path" to citizenship that Bush claimed. It would have granted "conditional" permanent legal status for a period of six years to undocumented migrants based on two sets of conditions.

The proposal would apply to those who entered the country under the age of 16, resided in the U.S. for a period of at least five consecutive years, received a high school diploma, didn't receive deportation order any time after turning 16, and had not turned 30 by the time of the act's passage.

Secondly, the "conditional status" would be made permanent only if the person completes at least two years in good standing in a program for a bachelor's degree or higher degree in the U.S., or has served two full years (without dishonorable discharge) in the U.S. military.

An estimated 360,000 undocumented high school graduates would be eligible for conditional status under the proposal, with another 715,000 youth who could qualify if they complete high school.

But it's the DREAM Act's particular "path to legalization" that has stirred debate within the immigrant rights movement.

Supporters contend that passage of the act would reduce the mass deportations, which claimed 185,431 men, women and children in 2006, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Furthermore, in absence of "comprehensive immigration reform," the DREAM Act is seen as a pragmatic way to implement changes piecemeal, emphasize education and encourage the integration of immigrant youth into society.

As Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum argued, "Narrowly targeted measures like the DREAM Act...can point the way towards real improvements for American families, the American economy and the bright future of immigrants in the country."

However, for other activists, the DREAM Act is cause for alarm--for fear of the devil that lurks in the details.

Progressive opponents of the DREAM Act don't deny the positive emphasis on education and the need to create a path to legalization. Instead, they point out that the education options under the proposed law would be highly limited for many, if not most, immigrant youth. As a result, they argue, the DREAM Act would become primarily a means to corral immigrants into the military.

According to Fernando Suarez del Solar, a prominent antiwar activist whose son was one of the first to die in Iraq, "I see it as a sort of draft...It's immoral."

Other progressive critics like Suarez del Solar point to the institutional impediments that immigrant youth face in the educational system and society as a whole, which work against their ability to complete high school or transfer to college--a reality ignored by the DREAM Act.

For example, Latino students in California (which has the single largest school-age representation overall and the largest undocumented population) are not being adequately prepared for college and have the lowest success rates for reasons of underfunding, discrimination and poverty.

According to a study by the National Council of La Raza, only 20 percent of Latino high school students are offered courses that are transferable to state colleges and universities, compared to 40 percent of white students. As a result, Latino students are the least likely to be prepared for--and to take--required college entrance examinations such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Since immigrant students and Latinos overall receive the least funding and preparation for college, they have the highest dropout rates (52 percent), lowest graduation rates (45 percent), lowest transfer rates (27 percent), and are least likely to receive a bachelor's degree (8 percent).

Success rates also fall short at the community college level. A 2006 study showed that 79 percent of all community college students (a primary choice for many Latino students, due to their lower fees and class schedule flexibility) drop out without obtaining any degree or certificate.

Structural poverty in Latino communities also narrows the college option. In San Diego County--which boasts one of the nation's second largest concentrations of military operations--Latinos are the most impoverished.

According to a study by the Center for Policy Initiatives, while Latinos have the highest rates of employment and make up less than a third of the population, they earn the lowest wages and comprise 52 percent of the total population living in poverty. When the undocumented population is viewed as a sub-group, the numbers plummet even more across every economic indicator.

To put the option of education even further out of reach, the DREAM Act sponsors dropped language that would have guaranteed in-state residency tuition rates for undocumented students--meaning that in most states, students with "conditional status" would have faced prohibitive international fees, since only 10 states allow the undocumented to qualify as a state resident.

Furthermore, those who qualify would be excluded from most forms of federal student aid, such as Pell grants, which are an indispensable source of tuition for low-income students. Most college-based scholarships also require applicants to be citizens.

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ACCORDING TO Jorge Mariscal, a University of California-San Diego professor, Vietnam veteran and prominent critic of military recruitment strategies, the DREAM Act would take advantage of the circumstances facing this section of youth.

"You are talking about a population that is absolutely desperate for legalization," he said. "And they are so desperate that they are going to join for the wrong reasons."

Or as Rick Jahnkow, coordinator of the Encinitas, Calif.,-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I think some will want to join the military, but I think more will essentially be coerced into it."

In fact, in promoting the DREAM Act, sponsor Dick Durbin allied with prominent Republicans and the Defense Department, which saw the law as a solution to the military's difficulties in meeting recruitment quotas.

"It turns out that many in the Department of Defense believe, as I do, that the DREAM Act is an important part of making certain we have talented young men and women ready to serve in our military," Durbin was quoted as saying in the Army Times.

"Largely due to the war in Iraq, the Army is struggling to meets its recruitment goals," he said. "Under the DREAM Act, tens of thousands of well-qualified potential recruits would become eligible for military service for the first time. They are eager to serve in the armed forces during a time of war."

Even without the DREAM Act, the number of non-citizens in the military has risen. There are now about 35,000 "green card" service members and 105,000 foreign-born members of the U.S. armed services, a vast increase since the Bush administration announced expedited citizenship for members of the armed services in 2002.

This growth--and the desire for more--is reflected in active military support for the DREAM Act.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, have both spoken in favor of using the promise of legalization as a way to refill their diminishing ranks.

Carr has supported the DREAM Act as a "very appealing" way of getting new recruits. The military, for its part, has implemented numerous projects towards large-scale recruitment of Latinos in the last decade.

Despite the right wing's defeat of the DREAM Act, efforts to lure or pressure immigrants into joining the military will coninue. The debate within the movement over the DREAM Act has highlighted the connections between war, empire and immigration. It is up to immigrant rights and antiwar activists to make these connections--and build the kind of movement that can unite those fighting for peace with those fighting for justice.

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