Why a Revised DREAM Act Might Help American Immigration Policy

By Stanley Renshon, December 29, 2010

The DREAM act, as I noted in yesterday's posting, speaks to the circumstances of the group of illegal immigrants most likely to draw sympathy from across a wide spectrum of political views. The problem, sympathetic conservative columnist Debra Saunders notes, is to find "a middle way that unites the right thing to do with smart politics."

The "smart politics" that Saunders refers to is clear from the rest of her column. It is the dilemma that faces Americans of all political stripes, and especially moderates and conservatives – most people, really, other than those wishing to legalize illegal immigrants by any means available. They strongly support legal immigration, but reject both illegal immigration and rewarding it.

They are up against a group of liberal Democrats and their allies who are determined to turn American immigration policy into an ethnic bidding war in which repeated legalizations, administrative adjustments and dispensations, and failure to seriously pursue the necessary technical and legal tools of workplace enforcement are the equivalent of political chits to be redeemed for votes.

Against this strategy, moderates and conservatives in both political parties have their work cut out for them.

Still, a revised DREAM Act presents opportunities to those who wish to take seriously the complexities of our current immigrant difficulties while trying to combine compassion with building an American immigration policy that reflects national interests and public sentiments.

There is a legal adage that "hard cases make bad laws," a reflection of the view that such cases, because of their uniqueness, distort the wider and less extreme set of circumstances that would cover more common occurrences. It may also be the case that unique and complex immigration circumstances provide an infirm foundation for developing general policy.

Yet there is an argument to be made that the opposite may be the case here. It is true that the DREAM Act's provisions would have addressed only a slice of America's immigration issues. Yet these particular slices of the America's immigration dilemma deal with many of the same issues that arise in their larger counterparts.

There are the vexing questions of what to do about those who have been living in the United States for some period of time. There is the vexing question of rewarding immigration transgressions. There is the vexing question of providing incentives for future immigration lawbreakers. And there is the vexing question of where, and how, to draw the line for any proposed immigration solution in a way that any agreement will not be undone by subsequent legal warfare.

For any DREAM Act revision, all of the issues must be addressed and resolved within the context of a group that merits some policy compassion because of their widely acknowledged personal innocence for the circumstances in which they find them themselves.

So, the issue of what to do with children brought illegally into the country by their parents touches on many of the major issues that permeate immigration debates in the United States, and do so for a group who justifiably lay claim to American traditions of fairness and compassion.

If we can make headway on this issue it may be possible to establish some general rules and even principles that may be helpful in the larger immigration questions that this country will continue to debate.

Next: How to Revise the DREAM Act, Part I: Remove Egregious Loopholes