They sound like a group custom-built and poll-tested to appeal to Republicans: hardworking youngsters with a powerful attachment to America, upright habits and a thirst to join the Army or enroll at State U. But the potential beneficiaries of the Dream Act are getting no love from the GOP.
That's because they are illegal immigrants—born abroad and brought here as children by parents desperate for a better life. Why they evoke scorn is a mystery. The parents may be faulted for overlooking our laws, but not their offspring, who had no say in the matter.
Many of the kids are as American as Miranda Lambert in every respect but place of birth: They speak English, play football and softball, post photos on Facebook and know the menu at McDonald's.
Some don't even realize they're not U.S. citizens until they apply for a driver's license or a Social Security card. At that point they discover they are subject to summary deportation to a country they may not even remember.
They learn that their only future in this country is no future at all: living in the shadows, dodging the law and missing out on opportunities the native-born take for granted. It's a life sentence of exile, internal or external.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act would mitigate their plight by offering them a deal. Those who have been here at least five years and arrived before the age of 16 could ask for conditional lawful permanent resident status, which would let them stay for six years. Only those who have a high school diploma or GED, "demonstrate good moral character" and pass a criminal background check would qualify.
During that period, they would be free to go to college or enlist in the military. Those who do either for two years would be eligible for permanent legal status, allowing them to become citizens. Those who don't would be obligated to leave.
Time was, Republicans could appreciate how people would be so determined to enter the Promised Land that they would ignore the law. It was the GOP icon Ronald Reagan who in 1986 supported and signed an immigration bill offering absolution to nearly 3 million undocumented foreigners.
"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally," he declared unashamedly.
The Dream Act once had considerable Republican support. Robert Gates, George W. Bush's defense secretary, endorsed it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended it in presidential debates. Richard Lugar, the longest serving U.S. senator in Indiana history, signed on as the chief GOP sponsor. When it came up in 2007, it had the support of a dozen Republican senators.
But that was before anti-immigrant fever infected the party. Lugar is facing a primary challenge from a tea party favorite endorsed by the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC)—which has called undocumented foreigners "Nazis" who "have set up ethnic cleansing zones." So the usually steadfast Lugar dropped the bill like a hot stove.
This is one issue where the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is large and distinct. In his State of the Union address, the president endorsed the bill, imploring Congress to "stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country."
Romney flatly rejects the Dream Act. His sole concession is a willingness to "study and consider" an alternative being drafted by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
But even that "compromise" is a fraud, because it would offer no plausible avenue to citizenship. It's a diamond ring without the stone.
Opponents of the Dream Act predict huge taxpayer costs as youngsters flock to public colleges at in-state rates. But why should the "dreamers" be barred from what their classmates can claim? It's easy to forget that though these kids are illegal, they are also blameless.
The complaint omits all the economic and fiscal rewards the change would yield. A UCLA study reported that gaining citizenship would boost the lifetime earnings of beneficiaries by a total of at least $1.4 trillion. Immigrants who get college degrees typically pay far more in taxes and require less in public assistance than they would otherwise. They're an asset, not a liability.
But that wins no points with Romney and Co. Theirs is an America where dreams go to die.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.