Brookings Holds Spirited Debate on Dream Act Variations

By David North on April 21, 2011

There was a spirited debate on variations of the Dream Act at the venerable Brookings Institution in Washington on April 20.

By Washington standards it was a "fair and balanced" session, with both presenters being mass migration sympathizers, as were two of the four panelists. But one of the two restrictionists present was CIS's Mark Krikorian, who suggested that a Dream Act with four major changes could be acceptable public policy, as outlined later.

The original Dream Act called for the legalization of more than a million illegals, starting with persons who crossed the border illegally while under the age of 16 who subsequent to the law's passage spent two years in college or the military. That version of the act, which passed the then Democratic House during last year's lame-duck session, but failed in the Senate, would have also allowed the parents of the legalized young people to be legalized as well.

The supporters of the legislation, at the Brookings session, said that it would be a shame to deport people in whom the nation had invested so much, in their years of K-12 education in the states. They also made much of the notion that the youngsters, while currently in an "unauthorized" status, had been too young to be regarded as responsible for their illegal presence.

That the presenters (Professor Marta Tienda of Princeton and Ron Haskins of Brookings) had opened the meeting discussing the educational failings of many immigrant children was lost in the subsequent dialogue. The title of the event was "Immigrant Children Falling Behind".

The opening sentence of the Brookings announcement was "Nearly a quarter of schoolchildren in the United States are immigrants or the children of immigrants. A substantial percentage of these children, especially those from Latin America, are falling behind in school, and as a result, face a bleak economic future."

The two presenters called for greater investments in "quality education" for these children. No one even mentioned the notion that if there is a problem population, one of the things that the state can do about it is to try to reduce the size of that population, in this case through less migration and more birth control. Instead, the emphasis by the presenters was on the utility of adding more young people to the population of a aging nation, and the need for the Dream Act.

Haskins called for more funding of preschool education, though he was pessimistic about the chances for this, for more good English language instruction, and for the passage of the Dream Act. He said that too much energy had been spent by educators discussing the relative utility of different methods for teaching English, and too little on its overall quality.

Tienda pointed out that many of the immigrant school children were living in parts of the United States where the institutional structure that had helped prior generations of immigrants was not available. She also spoke of the fund-seeking rivalry, at a macro level, of the elderly (who are voters) and the school children (who are not).

During the discussion period Krikorian suggested that a much-modified Dream Act might be acceptable, were some major changes to be made:

  • the cut-off age for eligibility would have to be sharply reduced, perhaps to seven, to make sure that the beneficiaries were, in fact, quite young when they arrived illegally in the U.S.;

  • the passage of the act would be conditioned on a really serious effort to enforce the immigration law, generally;

  • no parents of the newly-legalized would ever be allowed to receive any immigration benefits as a consequence of the children's legalization; and

  • the requirements for either college or military service would be removed from the proposal, if the motivation for it was simply to rectify the illegal entrance of small children.

Krikorian suggested that the college or military service aspects of the Dream Act were simply a "marketing gimmick" by advocates whose real motive was to lure policy makers into supporting a mass amnesty. He noted that many of the youngsters to be legalized could not pass the military's admission tests, and that many others were not college material. He also said that such a modified Dream Act would be easier to pass if it became clear that its supporters wanted only that legislation, and nothing more. No one on the panel offered any assurances on that point.

Also opposed to the Dream Act was Jena McNeill, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Both Josh Bernstein, of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings, supported the proposed legislation in its original form. Both stressed the tradition of immigration in the U.S. generally, and the attractive characteristics of those who arrived illegally before the age of 16.

Unlike some other discussions of immigration policy, this one was amicable, but spirited.

Footnote: Though I am generally fond of the Brookings Institute for its policy work, even intellectual giants sometimes have feet of clay.

As I registered electronically for this session a couple of days earlier, I was asked to pick out my state from the drop-down listings we are all so familiar with. I scrolled down to Virginia and over-scrolled, if that's a word, to a heading marked "U.S. Territories" and was curious as to what Brookings would list in that category. (I had spent some time on territorial issues while employed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.)

In addition to the correct entities – American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands – it listed three Central Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau – all one-time U.S. colonies but now Associated States with their own independent governments and their own votes in the United Nations. In another Brookings listing, of countries, each of the three is included as a separate nation. The trio have not been U.S. territories for 20 years or so, but maybe Brookings still thinks in imperial terms.

Topics: DREAM Act