By Arne Duncan
Even in tough times, Americans have used their freedom, common sense and respect for one another to do the right thing for the nation. Today, we face one of those times. There are thousands of hard-working, patriotic, young people who are leaders in their communities and who are looking for an opportunity to attend college or serve our country in the military, but they cannot, through no fault of their own. Congress has the opportunity to offer them and our country a brighter future by coming together in a bipartisan way to pass the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act will open the doors of higher education and military service to young people who were brought to America without documentation by their parents when they were children. If they are able to meet several requirements, they will have the chance to earn a legal status. Specifically, they will have to prove that they came to the United States before the age of 16, have lived here for at least five years, don’t have a criminal record, are not removable or inadmissible from the country, are of good moral character and graduated from a U.S. high school, obtained a GED, or have been admitted to an institution of higher education. Today, these students are living in fear of the next step of their lives, and attending college or other postsecondary education is difficult, while serving our country in the military is near impossible.
Passing the DREAM Act will unleash the full potential of young people who live out values that all Americans cherish — a strong work ethic; service to others; and a deep loyalty to our country. It will also strengthen our military, bolster our global economic competitiveness and increase our educational standing in the world.
By opening the American Dream of college for these bright, talented youth, we will unleash an academic force into the U.S. higher-education system. The result will be a new generation of college graduates who will help strengthen our economic security. This new generation will be a new set of future taxpayers who will contribute much more as college graduates than they ever would as struggling workers moving from one under-the-table job to another. They will help build the economy of the 21st century.
From a national security perspective, the DREAM Act will give the military the opportunity to recruit students who are eager to serve at a time when there’s a growing shortage of potential soldiers. The Defense Department’s strategic plan names the passage of the DREAM Act as one of its goals to help maintain a mission-ready all-volunteer force. Military leaders understand that at this critical time in our history, when we face countless threats to our way of life and the supply of soldiers does not match the demands being placed on our armed forces, a new pool of highly qualified candidates willing to put their lives on the line for America is a major plus for the country.
The students who will benefit from the DREAM Act are some of our country’s best and brightest. They were raised and educated in America. They include community leaders and volunteers who are committed to service in their neighborhoods. They are valedictorians and star athletes. They text and go to the mall. They are Americans in every sense of the word. They have deep roots here and are loyal to the country that has been the only home they’ve ever known. They want to serve our country and hope to become pediatricians, teachers and engineers. They are exactly the type of young people America should be embracing.
But, unlike their classmates, DREAM Act students are in a bind. It goes against the basic American sense of fairness to punish children for the choices of their parents. But thousands of young people find themselves in that position. We can’t let them continue to live unfulfilled lives of fear and squandered hopes. We must rise above the heated political rhetoric and embrace this common-sense approach. And we need to do it now before we lose this generation. It’s who we are as Americans, at our best.
Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.