WASHINGTON – A congressional hearing on Tuesday breathed new life into the decade-old and oft-thwarted effort to pass the proposed DREAM Act, but Democratic leaders concede there is no clear path to enactment and that one of the main obstacles is lack of Republican support.
Still, proponents who attended the first Senate hearing on the proposed legislation say they were heartened by the hearing itself and particularly encouraged by the appearance and testimony of three top Obama administration officials—including two Cabinet members—who all expressed support for the DREAM Act.
“Today is really important because one of the reasons why people oppose the DREAM Act is we’ve never had an official hearing,” said Jose Luis Marantes, a management consultant with United We Dream, a national network that pushes for legal status for immigrants. “It’s an important step in really taking the DREAM Act as a serious solution for immigration reform.”
At the same time, Democratic lawmakers concede that passage of the DREAM Act is still an uncertainty.
“We don’t have it yet,” said U.S. Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in reference to Republican support.
Asked during a post-hearing news conference for insight on the next formal steps and how the Democratic Party would go about winning passage of the law, Durbin said, “I’m going to be very careful about presenting the floor strategy on this. I don’t know what it might be.”
As proposed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act would give the children of undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria a shot at permanent residency in the United States.
Among other things, to qualify for the DREAM Act, the children of undocumented immigrants must have entered the United States before the age of 15 and been present in the United States for five years prior to enactment of the DREAM Act, be of “good moral character” without any convictions for certain laws and have been admitted to an institution of higher learning or have earned a high school diplomas or GED. Eligibility is restricted to those 35 and younger upon passage of the act.
In many ways, Tuesday’s hearing—conducted by the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security—represented a chance to rehash some of the arguments for and against the DREAM Act.
One of the main arguments for the law is that it potentially halts deportation for children of undocumented immigrants, who had no say in coming to the United States. However, critics say the act would provide an incentive for even more illegal immigration because the lure of an American higher education and permanent residency for their children would be the reward for breaking the law.
The hearing also gave the Obama administration—namely, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Undersecretary of Defense Clifford L. Stanley—a platform to press Congress to pass the DREAM Act for the thousands of youths whose parents immigrated illegally to the United States and whose lives and futures, through no fault of their own, remain in legal limbo as a result.
On the other hand, the hearing also afforded Republican critics a chance to interrogate Obama administration officials on how they would implement the proposed law, how they would utilize the discretion embedded within it and whether the administration would find a way to implement what the DREAM Act calls for even if Congress doesn’t pass it.
Gen. Stanley said the law would increase the pool of people eligible to serve in the U.S. military, and Secretary Napolitano said the act would enable her agency to use its limited resources to focus more on the removal of illegal immigrants who pose a serious threat to the United States, as opposed to DREAM Act students who simply want to take advantage of higher education in the country where they grew up.
Education Secretary Duncan said passage of the DREAM Act would be good for the economy because it would enable the children of undocumented immigrants to get a college education that would in turn allow them to get better jobs as opposed to jobs where they get paid “peanuts under the table.”
Duncan also said the act would better the country’s chances of being able to fill the many unfilled jobs in the STEM fields.
“Our country still has about 3 million unfilled jobs open today,” Duncan said. “By 2018, we need to fill 2.6 million in the STEM fields.”
“The students who benefit from the DREAM Act will absolutely help fill those jobs,” he added.
Asked whether the DREAM Act would pose any additional tax burden, Duncan said “quite the contrary” and cited Congressional Budget Office figures that showed the proposed act would generate $1.4 billion in revenue based on the jobs it would enable eligible participants to get.
“This is common sense legislation that will open doors of higher education to thousands of young people,” Duncan said. “By passing the DREAM Act, we will offer a new generation of immigrants … the chance to live the American dream.”
Durbin also noted that the DREAM Act has the formal support of several higher education organizations, including the American Council on Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Community Colleges. He added that he doubted these organizations would support legislation that imposed additional costs on their institutions.
“AASCU institutions are institutions of access and opportunity, and we pride ourselves on keeping students at the heart of our enterprise,” said Dr. Muriel A. Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in a formal statement obtained by Diverse. “AASCU institutions are eager to serve these students and to support them in fulfilling their ambitions in undergraduate education and beyond. By passing the DREAM Act, these students will have an opportunity to contribute to the American economy in high-needs disciplines and become capable and contributing citizens to the nation’s economy and workforce.”
However, Steve Camarota, director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that, if Congress passes the law, Congress should include additional money for institutions of higher learning, which in some cases are already at capacity.
He said that the DREAM act would cost about $12 billion for state colleges and community colleges to educate the additional 1 million or so students who would enroll as a result of the DREAM Act and that the act would lead to the “crowding out of U.S. citizens in public institutions already reeling from budget cuts at state and local levels.”
And Camarota cast doubt on Duncan’s assertion that the act will lead to higher wages for immigrants and thus more revenue for the federal government.
“Any hoped-for tax benefit will come in the long term and will not help public institutions deal with the large influx of students that the act creates in a short amount of time,” Camarota said.
Republican lawmakers concerned themselves largely with the criteria of whether those who have violated laws would be eligible for the DREAM Act and specifically with how the Department of Homeland Security, which would be responsible for implementing the law, would ascertain whether a DREAM Act applicant met the “good moral character test.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano whether she would use the discretion embedded within the DREAM Act to waive entirely the education or military service requirements.
“So you wouldn’t use the waiver authority in the bill?” Cornyn asked.
“Not necessarily,” Napolitano said.
“That’s not very reassuring,” Cornyn countered. “To give you or any other non-elected and non-accountable official the ability to waive a part of the law is not comforting to me.”
Asked how the department would deal with individuals who had broken the law multiple times but were still technically eligible for the DREAM Act, Napolitano said, “I think that we have to look at the totality of circumstances. And the bill allows the totality of circumstances to be taken into account.”