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Contesting a Dream

Would setting undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship help society or hurt it? A controversial bill reignited long-standing passions

By Emily Rosenbaum

Dina Lopez came to the United States when she was two years old. She and her family qualified to become permanent residents under the amnesty provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan in 1986 -- status that made her eligible for financial aid and ultimately enabled her to attend Brown University.  There she worked as a health educator and was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship when she graduated.  Today, Lopez is pursuing a doctorate at Teachers College in International and Transcultural Studies and working with community-based organizations that focus on women’s literacy and social justice. 

“The college experience gave me the skills to participate in this way,” she says.

Lopez’s story would seem to make a pretty strong case for allowing more of the nation’s estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

“Immigrants who receive the benefits of education tend to become leaders and educators in their own communities,” says Regina Cortina, TC Associate Professor of Education.

Yet this past fall, when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions led defeat of the DREAM Act -- a bill that would have given permanent residency status to those completing a college education or a minimum period of military service – it could be argued that he was taking dead aim at people like Lopez. In a November broadside to Senate colleagues titled “Ten Things You Need to Know about the DREAM Act,” Sessions’ top objection to the bill was that it would give “an estimated 2.1 million illegal aliens access to in-state tuition rates at public universities, federal student loans and federal work study programs.”

More than any other country in the world, the United States is a nation of immigrants. Its population has been repeatedly infused by new arrivals, from the earliest colonists from the Netherlands, England, France and Spain, to the successive waves of newcomers from Germany, Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the more recent influxes from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.  In 1912, publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals introduced the phrase “smelting pot” (the “s” soon fell away) to describe the United States as a utopia where people of all backgrounds merged into a homogenous oneness – a vision that has since yielded to one of multiple ethnic affiliations persisting and co-existing side by side. And in the 1930s, the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the notion of the American Dream, which he wrote “has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century…a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman.”

Yet American history has also been marked by repeated interludes of hostility toward specific immigrant populations. In 1798, during an undeclared war with France, the fifth U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, four bills that restricted aliens, curtailed press criticism of the government, increased the waiting period for naturalization and authorized expulsion of aliens considered dangerous.

In 1908, the Dillingham Commission was created to report on rising immigration in the United States – particularly Jewish immigration -- which it blamed for the growth of urban slums, crime and illiteracy. Two Presidents (Taft and Wilson) resisted the Commission’s call for tighter immigration policies, but the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the establishment of an American Communist party triggered legislation that curtailed freedom of speech and led to thousands of arrests.

During World War II, President Roosevelt authorized the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor – an episode for which President Reagan issued a formal apology in 1988.

The battles over the DREAM Act (the name is an acronym for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors ) constitute the latest chapter in the nation’s love-hate relationship with immigrants. Certainly, as in the past, security has been a central concern. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 helped derail a version of the bill then under consideration. More recently, Sessions argued that the bill would allow “alien gang members” to become citizens, while Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has stated her belief that most illegal aliens in her state are being used to smuggle drugs in over the Mexican border.

With the country still digging out from the Great Recession, however, it seems that the strongest sentiments, pro and con, aroused by the DREAM Act have to do with its potential economic impact. The Act has gone through several iterations, but in all versions, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children would be eligible for conditional permanent residency.  Those who then completed two years of either college education or military service would be eligible to become U.S. citizens. In November, the Center for Immigration Studies – which describes itself as a “pro-immigrant, low-immigration think tank” -- issued a report estimating the cost of the DREAM Act to taxpayers at $6.2 billion, assuming a tuition subsidy of $6,000 each for some 1.03 million undocumented immigrants.

But a study released in December by the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the DREAM Act would increase overall rrevenues far more than it would cost in educational assistance.  The study claims that the latest DREAM Act (H.R. 6497) would have increased tax revenues by $1.7 billion in the next decade. While those gains would have been reduced somewhat by outlays in Social Security, Medicare and refundable tax credits, the fees and surcharges paid by applicants for permanent residency would essentially have balanced the ledger. Bottom line, according to the study: the DREAM Act would have reduced the federal deficit by $2.2 billion by the year 2020.

Beyond these projections, however, it seems that one’s stance on the DREAM Act depends on whether one believes that adding more citizens will reinvigorate the economy or simply further deplete a finite pool of resources.

In the short term, the latter argument seems to elicit the strongest response.

“At a time when many Americans can’t afford to send their children to college at all, this bill would allow states to provide in-state tuition to illegal aliens who would displace legal residents competing for those taxpayer subsidies,” Senator David Vitter of Louisiana said this past fall.

But proponents of the bill reject the longer-term argument that immigrants granted permanent residency would take jobs that might otherwise go to unemployed American citizens, contending that the opposite is true.

“The economy is not a zero-sum game,” says Francisco Rivera-Batiz, TC Professor of Economics and Education. Rivera-Batiz argues that immigrants often start businesses that create jobs, a view backed by research. One oft-cited study from 2007 found that a quarter of all U.S. technology companies started between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder. The latest Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship found that immigrants have a 0.51 percent rate of entrepreneurship, compared with the native-born rate of 0.30 percent. And in Michigan immigrants are three times more likely to start businesses than the state’s non-immigrants – a figure that has inspired a program called Global Detroit, which tries to attract immigrant entrepreneurs in order to stimulate the economy.

In order to make major economic contributions as members of the workforce, however, undocumented immigrants first need education – specifically, college education. Right now, the system denies them that prize.

One major obstacle is the cost. Even public universities and community colleges often aren’t an option for undocumented immigrants, says  Kevin Dougherty, Associate Professor of Higher Education.  Public universities and community colleges are not always an option.  Only 11 states offer in-state tuition to students without legal status, while three states explicitly prohibit those students from receiving in-state tuition  and the rest fall somewhere in the middle.  Without in-state tuition, education costs are unreachably high, Dougherty says.  For state residents, average in-state tuition and fees for community colleges were $3,029 in 2009-10, while average tuition and fees for out-of-state students were $7,525.  And even in-state tuition can be difficult to meet, as Dougherty and doctoral students Kenny Nienhusser point out, because undocumented students cannot get federal or (in all but two states) state financial aid.  “Realistically, with no DREAM Act in place, the majority of undocumented students receive no money in assistance,” Nienhusser says.

Rivera-Batiz believes these barriers leave undocumented immigrants with no viable option.  “We encouraged many of these immigrants to come and stay,” he says. “We had a shortage of unskilled workers, and we filled those jobs with the undocumented. They have been a big boost for a variety of industries that otherwise would not have survived over the years. From construction workers and gardeners to nannies and hotel service workers, employers of all types encouraged workers to take jobs. We also made it increasingly difficult for them to leave. Increased border enforcement since the 1990s has discouraged many immigrants from going back because they know it would be much more difficult to return to the United States.  In the past, many undocumented immigrants were temporary, moving back home after a limited period of time. This has changed because of the increased border enforcement, and it has contributed to a build-up of undocumented immigrants in this country. They have brought their families with them and have made America their long-term home. Now, some misguided policymakers want to prevent their children from attaining higher levels of schooling.” 

Perversely, this system also prevents American taxpayers from recouping an investment they have already made, argues TC graduate student Sayu Bhojwani, who founded and now directs the New American Leaders Project.

“We’ve already provided these young people with public education at a cost to taxpayers,” Bhojwani says.  By closing off their education after high school, the country is limiting the students’ ability to participate in the economy, she says.  Even if students do find a way to finance higher education, the current system locks them out once they graduate. 

“They can’t get jobs once they finish college because they don’t have a social security number that allows them to work,” says TC’s Cortina. “This forces them into lower-skilled, lower-paying positions.”

But in a nation in which 12.5 percent of the population is foreign-born, it may be the future that ultimately convinces people to support the DREAM Act.  

“We need to educate the young, and the young are the children of the immigrants,” Cortina says. Census statistics back this claim; in 2005, New Mexico’s Hispanic population was 43 percent, California’s and Texas’ both stood at 35 percent, and Arizona’s was 29 percent.   (The median age, nationwide, for Hispanic and Latino populations is 27.2, as opposed to 40.3 for non-Hispanic or -Latino white people.  Not all immigrants are Latino, of course, nor are all Latinos immigrants, but these statistics illustrate a strong demographic shift.) The addition of all these people to the workforce would increase tax revenues and create additional funding for social security.  

Despite the Senate filibuster that brought down the DREAM Act in December, President Obama has signaled his commitment to reintroducing this legislation. Increasingly there are reminders that support for the bill may not play out along traditional party lines. Last year, Dougherty, Nienhusser, and TC student Blanca Vega published a study in The Review of Higher Education, titled “Undocumented Immigrants and State Higher Education Policy: The Contrasting Politics of In-State Tuition Eligibility in Texas and Arizona,” that concluded many Republicans see immigrants as an important potential political constituency.  In 2001, Texas -- with the backing of many Republican state officers, including then-Governor George W. Bush -- passed a law making undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition,. Other predominantly Republican states that have created in-state tuition eligibility for undocumented immigrants include Utah, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas.

Indeed, it may be the states, rather than the federal government, that set the nation’s course on immigration in the future.

“I accept Louis Brandeis’s point about states being laboratories of democracy,” Dougherty says.  “Often they can pioneer not only the actual content of policy, but also the political coalitions necessary to drive those policy changes.”  

With a movement afoot to limit “birthright citizenship” -- the right of citizenship for anyone born in the United States -- it’s clear that immigration remains a highly emotional issue.  Many TC faculty and graduate students argue that immigrants can provide benefits to their communities and the nation as a whole.  “Part of the American dream is coming to have employment and improve economic opportunities,” says Rivera-Batiz – and in that that dream, benefits flow from  the immigrant to the nation and back again.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Friday, Mar. 11, 2011


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