It’s time to empower the DREAMers

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

When it comes to sheer meanness, it’s hard to match the contempt that’s raging among some Americans these days for the DREAM Act.

This decade-old measure contains provisions for undocumented students who graduate from high school to gain temporary legal residency, and later permanent legal residency. For the first, a student must have lived in the U.S. for five years, must have been brought here before age 16 and must be of good moral character. Within six years, the student is considered for permanent legal residency if he or she graduates from a two-year college or completes two years toward a four-year degree or serves two years in the U.S. military. In other words, if you’re good and smart, you can be an American.

Those standards seem more than enough to become an American, in my view, especially the military commitment. If you’re brave enough to defend our freedom, you should be allowed to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave as a legal resident. Many people disagree and complain that the bill coddles criminals. But the DREAM Act is not about people who choose to enter this country illegally; it’s about their children. God help my two grown children if their dreams die from the sins of their father.

As often is the case, I like to view this issue from a golfer’s perspective. Let’s say I get a hole-in-one and my playing partner says, “You did everything necessary to qualify for a hole-in-one, but your dad didn’t pay his speeding ticket 15 years ago, so I’m giving you a 2.” Such is the warped logic of the DREAM Act’s detractors.

The bill is supported nationally by 54 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll released on Friday. It was approved last week in the U.S. House by a vote of 216-198 (Brian Baird was the only Democrat from Washington to oppose it). It’s endorsed by Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, his predecessor Terry Bergeson, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Microsoft and a vast array of other supporters in multiple fields. But the bill is stalled in the Senate because, as we’ve learned in the past two years, approval by up to 59 percent is just not enough in that chamber.

Local impact

How might the DREAM Act play out in our state and in Clark County? No one is sure. Undocumented students are not willing to divulge such status, and schools are not allowed to ask. But the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (based just south of Sea-Tac) estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 students statewide would qualify for this route to citizenship. LEAP Director Ricardo Sanchez told me last week that one young woman recently earned a law degree from the University of Washington and passed the bar exam, but cannot practice law because she is not a legal resident. That’s absurd.

Here in Clark County, the number of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries is equally unknown, but Sanchez provided some other interesting statistics. According to LEAP, the number of Hispanic students in the Vancouver school district increased in 22 years (1986 to 2008) from 332 to 2,932, or 783 percent. Overall enrollment increased 45.8 percent. In the Evergreen district, LEAP says the Hispanic enrollment increased from 277 to 2,286, or 725.3 percent, compared with a 97.6 percent increase in overall enrollment. Statewide, Hispanic enrollment soared 394 percent in those 22 years.

That’s a lot of dreams. Marshall Fitz of the Center for American Progress describes three options for dealing with these young people: “deport them to a country they barely know; preserve the status quo and consign these talented kids — who include valedictorians — to a hopeless future; or pass the DREAM Act … The first and second options are morally bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible.” Indeed, it would cost $25.5 billion over five years to deport the 1.1 million potential DREAMers, Fitz wrote.

Until Americans become a little more civilized and lose a lot of hate, a million dreamers are left to follow a modified Stuart Smalley approach: Gaze into a mirror and mutter, “I’m good enough, and I’m smart enough to do the right thing, but for now at least, many other Americans are not.”

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.