Children of Illegal Immigrants Caught in Education Politics Crossfire

The DREAM Act’s popularity is growing, but there are obstacles that stand in its way to becoming law.


Peggy Orchowski, Ph.D., is the congressional correspondent for the Hispanic Outlook on Higher Education magazine and author of Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria.

The DREAM Act is back in the news. President Obama referred to it in his immigration speech at the American University on July 1. Groups of high school and college students have been marching and getting arrested for it all summer. Sen. Dick Durbin supported a Capitol Hill demonstration on it on July 20. Pollster Celinda Lake said at a Brookings Institute immigration panel in May: "How can anyone be against it?" [See who supports Durbin.]

So do you know what the DREAM Act is exactly?

Durbin describes it as "a narrowly tailored, bipartisan bill that would provide immigration relief to a select group of students who grew up in the United States but are prevented from pursuing their dreams by current immigration law".

President Obama said he supports it because it would "stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they've grown up."

Supporters say "the DREAM Act would enable children under the age of 16 brought by their parents to the United States illegally to gain citizenship by completing two years of high school, college or military service."

But these descriptions do not tell the full story.

The DREAM (which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is legislation that has been proposed in various forms for some 10 years by both Republican and Democratic senators. It would allow each state (if it wants) to grant in-state tuition, state scholarships, and public tax-supported loans to young adults who came into the country illegally before the age of 16, have lived in the U.S. illegally for at least five years, graduated from an American high school (or its equivalent) and have a clean police record, among other conditions. It would allow these young adults who complete two years of college or military service to eventually earn citizenship if they want. Most versions of the act would only cover qualified young illegal immigrants who are currently in the country. It is not supposed to cover or encourage others in the future.

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

It is unlikely that many DREAM Act supporters know or even care about these details. They advocate for the ideal of giving illegal immigrant graduates from American high schools the "dream" of staying, affording college, and getting the legal right to work in the United States

Many people sympathize with this ideal. But realistically, the DREAM Act can't pass. It has three fatal flaws and one big political obstacle.

1. The most serious flaw of the DREAM Act as envisioned is that it gives valuable public-subsidized college benefits to illegal immigrant students that even U.S. out-of-state college students and the children of probably our smartest temporary legal immigrants (advanced degree foreign students, doctors, researchers, high tech workers, etc. who often are here for six or more years) don't get. That is perceived as highly unjust by many Americans.

To be fairer, maybe DREAM benefit should go to all offspring of immigrants (legal and illegal) who were brought into the country as infants or very young "children"—before the age of 8 or 10 at most and who completed both primary and elementary school in the United States in not less than 10 years.

2. In addition, as presently written, the DREAM Act would give a pathway to expedited citizenship to more than one million (some say up to two million) adult illegal immigrants. These are more permanent immigrant permits than are granted in a single year to foreign nationals who apply legally. DREAM Act opponents call this "sneak amnesty."

3. It is highly likely that the DREAM Act could encourage even more illegal immigration of high school-aged youths. Though as written the benefits are limited to illegal immigrant students currently in the country, it is hard to imagine that once granted, the "dream" of a subsidized college education and legality won't be extended to future illegal immigrant youths who graduate from American high schools.