Barely Illegal

The case for the The DREAM Act


It's hard to shake the feeling that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is good for little more than a few punchlines. Yet his recent comments on legalizing illegal immigrants could well jumpstart a stalled policy debate that was getting started when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

Speaking in Miami earlier this week, Ridge said, "The bottom line is, as a country we have to come to grips with the presence of 8 to 12 million illegals [and] afford them some kind of legal status some way." Ridge went on to say that "as a country" we need to decide "what our immigration policy is and then enforce it….I'm not saying make them citizens, because they violated the law to get here."

Here's something that should receive serious consideration: Grant a Reagan-style amnesty to illegals who have demonstrated a willingness to live and work peacefully and productively in the United States. As part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Ronald Reagan made 4 million illegals eligible for legal residency. The law allowed immigrants who showed they'd been in the country before 1982 a year to apply for temporary resident status and employment permits.

Some Republicans, including Orrin Hatch and apparently President Bush himself, are already leaning in this direction. Following up on a House bill introduced earlier this year, Hatch sponsored The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (The DREAM Act), which would end the federal ban on states letting illegal aliens pay in-state tuition at public colleges and would give conditional resident status to aliens who entered the U.S. before turning 16 years old and who have graduated from high school, been accepted to college, or served in the military.

As of late October, the bill had around 40 co-sponsors from both parties. It was seen as enough of a threat to gin up an attack from the unabashed Heather Locklear fans over at the anti-immigrant site VDARE.com. (Peter Brimelow, the proprietor of the site named for the "first" European born in Britain's American colonies, has written: "If, through some miracle of genetic recombination, Virginia Dare is reborn in Ms. Locklear's beautiful face, [Dare's grandfather and colonial governor of Roanoke] John White might well have recognized her.") Juan Mann's piece on the legislation was cleverly titled "Illegal Alien's D.R.E.A.M.—Patriot's Nightmare." Similar carping came from the Federation for American Immigration Reform. In a story for the Conservative News Service, a spokesman for the group averred, "The Republicans are being naive if they don't see the DREAM Act as the vehicle by which the Democrats are going to push for the extension of general amnesty for the whole illegal alien population currently in the United States."

The Senate and House have yet to pass The DREAM Act, though given strong bipartisan support, it seems likely that some version of the bill will eventually land on the president's desk. But would a wider amnesty be such a bad thing? To zaftig xenophobes such as CNN's Lou Dobbs and rabid restrictionists such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who has attributed everything from economic decline to leprosy to immigrants, the answer is yes.

The rest of us should seriously consider a Reagan-style amnesty program (or in presidential candidate Dick Gephardt's curious and intriguing phrase, "earned legalization"). It's tempting to cast debates about immigration strictly in terms of economic "costs and benefits": Do migrants, whether legal or illegal, whether foreign-born or U.S. citizens, put more into the public till of a particular area than they take out? Even when such attempts are done in a truly open spirit of inquiry, the data are far from clear or decisive. (For a good overview of these arguments, see "Muddled Masses.") That's because concerns about immigration are never simply, or even mostly, economic. As comments by Tancredo and others suggest, they are, at rock bottom, about cultural identity, especially fears of mixing and mongrelization, of becoming tainted by—or attracted to—dusky hordes. Indeed, it may well be that, as the essayist Richard Rodriguez has suggested, one reason we fear immigrants is that we see in them the ambition and drive that motivated our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. We see in them the next great generation of Americans, in which we are reduced to the role of a minor contributor. (Certainly such characteristics come through in this phenomenal report on illegal immigrants by Reason Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin.)

The simple fact is that the U.S. absorbed the people during the Reagan amnesty with little or no problem (at a time, it's worth noting, when we had higher unemployment than we do today). There is no reason to believe that we can't do the same now. Even the great post-9/11 rationale for reduced immigration of all kinds—national security—is unconvincing, especially seeing as how all the 9/11 hijackers were already known to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In any case, tracking terrorists is a job for intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and it's hard to see how making people legal—and hence more visible to authorities—would diminish safety.

While immigration can stress publicly funded services such as hospitals and schools, those stresses are standing arguments to legalize immigrants so as to capture more fully their tax payments. Indeed, such stresses, which also come with perfectly legal internal migration throughout the U.S., are also standing arguments to change the way we offer a host of taxpayer-supported services. Throughout its history, the great genius of the U.S. has been its ability both to accommodate and to change in reaction to the millions of immigrants who have come here to work, live, and prosper. One of the great shames of this country is that its immigration policies have often been at best arbitrary and more often explicitly racist, designed to keep out unfavored groups. That legacy is one of the reasons it is hard to get too bent out of shape over illegals: Among those of us who lay claim to, say, Italian heritage, who wouldn't have wanted our parents or grandparents to enter the country after such people were effectively barred from entering the country in the mid-1920s?

Back in July 2001, President Bush spoke from the registration hall at Ellis Island in support of expediting immigration applications. "100 million Americans can draw a straight line from the life they know today, to a moment inside this hall," he said. "Immigration is not a problem to be solved, it is a sign of a confident and successful nation. Their arrival should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment, but with openness and courtesy."

He's absolutely right—about both legal and illegal immigrants.