The Long Nightmare of the Dreamers

Immigration reform is desperately needed.


A lot has happened in America since April 25, 2001—the 9/11 attacks, two major wars, the Great Recession, the first black president, the iPhone, a Cubs World Series title, and Donald Trump. That was the day the Dream Act, to protect young immigrants brought here illegally as children, was first introduced in Congress. Seventeen years later, they are still waiting for protection.

The fate of those immigrants, known as Dreamers, is stark evidence of the mind-numbing irrationality and dysfunction of our system of government. They did nothing wrong; they have contributed to American society; and they can be accommodated without harmful side effects.

The great majority of Americans reject this treatment. A January ABC News/Washington Post poll found that when asked if they supported a "program that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they arrived here as a child, completed high school or military service and have not been convicted of a serious crime," a staggering 87 percent of Americans said yes.

Yet year after year, the simple, sensible, humane solution has remained on the shelf. President George W. Bush failed to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill with this included. President Barack Obama was also unsuccessful.

In 2012, Obama finally elected to shield many of these young people with an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Some 800,000 immigrants who qualified got permits to stay here and work. But the program was of uncertain legality, and Donald Trump decided last year to end it.

DACA is now in the hands of the federal courts, some of which have blocked its termination. It is also in the hands of Congress, which could approve the Dream Act in some form. But despite broad public sentiment for letting the Dreamers stay, nothing has been enacted and nothing is likely to be.

Granting them a path to citizenship is more than anti-immigration Republicans can tolerate. In closing down the program, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA has "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."

This is a hard argument to make at a time when the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, the lowest since 2000. As economists universally agree, immigrants (documented or not) not only fill jobs but create them. Since Obama announced the program, the economy has added more than 12 million jobs.

Trump, whose understanding of the policy is close to nil, recently claimed that "caravans" of Central Americans marching through Mexico to cross the border were "trying to take advantage of DACA." But DACA applied only to youngsters who arrived by June 2007. Even the Dream Act would cover only people who came at least four years before its enactment.

Critics regard any accommodation as "amnesty," the term used for the legal status offered to some 3 million unauthorized foreigners in legislation signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Granting refuge to the dreamers, we are told, would stimulate unauthorized immigration by rewarding those who violated the law.

This is wrong for two main reasons. The first is that the foreigners it helps didn't choose to break the law: They were brought by their parents. Many have no memory of or acquaintance with their native lands. Most come from Mexico or Central America, but some don't speak Spanish. Some grew up thinking they were citizens.

To banish them to unfamiliar foreign countries would punish them for the transgressions of their parents. Those known to be dangerous—like the MS-13 "animals" Trump denounces—would not be eligible.

The second fallacy is the notion that the Dream Act would be a magnet pulling in hordes of undocumented migrants. The potential beneficiaries have waited 17 years for a law offering them protection. If it were passed, the typical recipient would have to wait another 13 years to apply for citizenship.

Even if such legislation were enacted into law, there can't be many foreigners who would bet their lives that another version will be adopted decades from now. Not to mention that the foreigners pondering that wager would know that in the best scenario, they would never gain legal status; only their children would. Some incentive.

As it happens, though, there is hardly any chance Congress and the president will act to protect these innocents from the threat of bitter exile. Unable to muster wisdom and resolve, our policymakers will default to cruelty.