December 10, 2010

DREAM Act holds promise of economic stimulus for state

Cross-posted from the Sacramento Bee op-ed co-authored with Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, published on November 28.

As early as this week, Congress might decide the fate of thousands of young Californians who would like to fully contribute to our economy, but currently are unable to do so because of their immigration status. The House of Representatives and the Senate plan to vote on the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented young men and women of good moral character who attend college or enlist in the armed services with a pathway to citizenship.

Even if they lack the right papers, the young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act are unquestionably American. Many were brought to the United States as infants by their parents and do not remember life in the countries of their birth. Some do not even speak the language of the nations that were once home. Fighting long odds and overcoming numerous barriers, they have excelled in our educational system. Moreover, they have been members of our church congregations, Little League and soccer teams, attended our schools and become friends of our children.

The DREAMers, as undocumented students are called, now want to participate as full members of society by using their education to contribute to the work force – and work legally. Congress should act now and make that possible.

DREAMers are already integral components of our colleges and universities. Recently, the nation learned that Pedro Ramirez, who was elected by his classmates to be the student body president of California State University, Fresno, was undocumented. Co-valedictorian of his high school, Ramirez has excelled in college. How many parents would dream of having their child be student body president? Having lived in this country since he was 3, Ramirez did not even know that he was an undocumented immigrant until he began the college application process.

Because of his immigration status, Ramirez has served as student body president but, to avoid violating the law, declined the customary $9,000 stipend. So much for the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are unabashed lawbreakers. The stipend would have helped Ramirez immensely. As an undocumented student, he is not eligible for federal or state financial assistance and educational loans.

Thousands of young men and women just like Pedro Ramirez have worked hard and deeply want to contribute to this – indeed, their – great nation. Unfortunately, unless Congress passes federal legislation, there is virtually no way for them to work legally. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the federal immigration law that Congress amends in piecemeal fashion almost annually, is woefully out of sync with the nation's current economic needs.

We all benefit by ensuring that the DREAMers can live the American dream. The DREAM Act would allow us to take a first, important step toward modernizing the U.S. immigration laws by allowing those who call this country home to be permitted to fully contribute economically to the nation's well-being.

For Californians, the DREAM Act holds the promise of improving a sputtering economy. More than 500,000 DREAMers live in California. With a college education or military training, these young people have the skills and education to jump-start the economy and create a more prosperous work force.

Moreover, common sense dictates that college-educated workers – workers whom Californians invested in by providing a K-12 education – earn more and contribute more in taxes than those without such an education. It is irrational not to capitalize on the state's investment in the DREAMers as well as to deny California's employers, and tax coffers, this valuable asset. In enacting Assembly Bill 540, the California Legislature reached a similar conclusion and ensured that all graduates of California high schools would be eligible for in-state resident fees at California's public colleges and universities, a law that the California Supreme Court recently upheld.

Some argue that Congress should wait to pass a more comprehensive solution to fix the nation's broken immigration system. We firmly believe that it unquestionably is the case that the nation must eventually create a system that meets the societal and economic needs of the United States. However, to paraphrase Voltaire, the "perfect" should not be the enemy of the "good." In our estimation, the DREAM Act would be a "good," even if not a "perfect," first step toward some kind of lasting, meaningful and practical immigration reform.

Californians face many difficult decisions in putting their economic house in order. By passing the DREAM Act, Congress can help provide a cost-neutral economic stimulus that will help the Golden State's future entrepreneurs, engineers, Web designers and community leaders to contribute fully to California's economy.

Note: I also signed on to a letter that was published in the Huffington Post.  Click here to read We Cannot Afford Not to Pass the DREAM Act: A Plea from Immigration Scholars.