Congress may soon have a chance to repair, in a powerful way, the shambles it has made of immigration. It can pass an amendment to the defense authorization bill due to come before the Senate on Tuesday. The amendment is the Dream Act, an inspired bit of carving from the hugely ambitious, chronically unsuccessful comprehensive immigration reform.
The Dream Act opens the door to military service and higher education for young people whose parents brought them to this country as children without proper documentation. If they finish high school, show good moral character and serve at least two years in the military or earn a college degree, they can earn citizenship.
In a poisoned climate for legislation of any kind, and with the immigration debate more wretched than ever, the Dream Act’s chances are uncertain. That is a shame, because the act was written for exactly the kind of people America should be embracing: young soldiers, scholars, strivers, future leaders.
Those who might qualify — roughly 800,000 of the 11 million people living here without authorization — are blameless for their illegal status and helpless to make it right. Most cannot leave their families to return to countries they do not know. They cannot legally work, qualify for scholarships or loans to pay for college, or serve in the military. They live in limbo, vulnerable to arrest, their dreams deferred, their hopes squandered.
The Defense Department, at least, understands their value. Passage of the Dream Act is one of its official goals for helping to maintain “a mission-ready, all-volunteer force.” The educators and others who also support the act recognize how much better it is to encourage the aspirations of young people, not to consign them to lives of under-the-table jobs and unmet potential.
For years the Dream Act was shackled to larger immigration bills as a sweetener to help forge one big compromise. Now that comprehensive reform is dead in this Congress, and perhaps in the next, the Dream Act is the best hope for legalizing any significant number of Americans-in-waiting.
The president and Congress and dejected supporters of comprehensive reform have an obligation to make the Dream Act come true. Republican senators who have shelved their commitment to reform should help make it happen: people like Orrin Hatch, an original Dream Act sponsor, now a sour voice for border control. Sam Brownback, another former supporter. And the formerly bipartisan Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
The Dream Act alone won’t achieve the large-scale reform the country needs. But it will be a desperately needed affirmation that fixing immigration is not all about border fear and lockdowns. It’s about welcoming the hopeful.