In defense of the failed Dream Act immigration bill

A failed bill to legalize and educate children of immigrants would have provided clemency for new immigrants in the same way it was applied for early immigrants from Europe.

WASHINGTON — I live in a very multicultural and ethnically diverse county in my state.  My children’s school is situated minutes away from a community that looks to be over 90 percent Hispanic.  I drive through it after dropping my children off each day.  Last week, on the eve of an attempt by Democrats in Congress to pass a controversial immigrant bill known as the Dream Act, the thought crossed my mind that it is very likely that many of those children in that community would have benefited from that legislation. The Dream Act, which was tacked onto the defense authorization bill, would have enabled the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to this country by their parents to gain legal permanent resident status on condition of them attending college or serving in the U.S. military for two years. 

The bill failed on procedural grounds last week, but many thought it to be dead in the water given the anti-immigrant sentiments that dominate American policies these days especially against those from Hispanic and Latin American countries.  According to research, about 76 percent of all illegal immigrants are Hispanics, with Mexicans being the largest group at 7 million.   

The Dream Act

The Dream Act

The immigrant population in that community near my children’s school is mirrored by other pockets of communities throughout the states. It is not unlike those that existed decades before that were populated by other ethnic groups.

According to, a federal website dedicated to chronicling the history of the United States, most of the 15 million immigrants that came to the United States between 1820 through the 1880s settled in the Northeast to cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.  Some settled in other regions. For example, immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Bohemia and Germany settled in the American Midwest, for the most part.

In any event, since then, recent immigrants have come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. Like their European predecessors, they also came chasing the American Dream, thus the name of the bill, the Dream Act. A July 2010 poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans supported the Dream Act.

Over this past week, I witnessed several exchanges among friends in my social media network chatting about the Dream Act legislation.   Overwhelmingly, my Facebook friends supported the idea of military service being a path to citizenship but most were opposed to the idea of college being used as a path.  Attending college should be its own reward, one friend remarked.  You shouldn’t get status conditioned on getting a higher education.  Others opposed the idea that the law would’ve allowed those children to fund their education using federal aid that is subsidized by US tax payer dollars.  Many Americans who do not qualify for such aid and must work hard to send their own children to school said it would be unfair for kids of people they deemed to be lawbreakers to get the privilege of a free education.

Being an immigrant myself and having so many family members and friends that are immigrants, I can empathize with the would-be recipient of the Dream Act.  The child who was brought to this country without his knowledge would be forced into a state of limbo after graduating from High School.  By the time a child raised here from young graduates High School; he is much like any other American kid, used to a way of life here and probably has little ties or attachment to his or her country of origin.  Those children would not even be acculturated to life in their parents’ countries.

The co-host to my online blog talk radio, Right of Black, said on air last week that she felt the Democrats knew the measure was doomed to start and would be subject to filibuster, but pushed it anyway in order to score political points with immigrant voters before mid-term elections.  Interesting perspective as everything is political these days.

Indeed, there is no doubt that America has a broken immigration system.  There is an estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants in the United States according to a PEW Research Center study based on US Census data through March 2008.  Maybe the bill was not the right solution and I do believe it was indeed a back door amnesty program to address a vulnerable population.

However, it would not be the first time America granted Amnesty for illegal aliens. Ronald Reagan’s administration granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants in 1986.  Also, though many Americans assume their ancestors came here legally, many immigrated under different standards.  When many families arrived in the U.S., there were no numerical limitations on immigration, no requirements to have an existing family or employment relationship with someone in the U.S., and no requirement to obtain a visa prior to arriving.  As numerical limitations were instituted and certain immigrants were restricted from entering the U.S., illegal immigration increased.  The definition of who was “legal” and who was “illegal” changed with the evolution of immigration laws. In fact, many American families might not have been allowed to enter the United States if today’s requirements were applied to their ancestors.  

Further, throughout history early immigrants, many from Europe, benefitted from a form of amnesty that was really just lenient and subjective application of the immigration laws.  The Immigration Policy Center writes: 

Acknowledging the large numbers of illegal Europeans in the U.S., the government devised ways for them to remain in the U.S. legally.  *Deserving* illegal European immigrants could benefit from various programs and legalize their status.  The 1929 Registry Act allowed *honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity* to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the U.S. since 1921 and were of *good moral character.*  Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940—80% were European or Canadian.  Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 illegal Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through *pre-examination*—a process that allowed them to leave the U.S. voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a *touch-back* program)—or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in *meritorious* cases.  Approximately 73% of those benefitting from suspension of deportation were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians).

It seems to me that the drafters of the Dream Act had similar intentions as those who drafted those past immigrant exceptions – to grant innocent children of Hispanics and Latinos some leniency.  Roughly 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from high school every year.  I also acknowledge the problem the Dream Act would have headed off.  What happens when the children of illegal aliens graduate from High School is they run the risk of finding ways to keep busy that may not been good? It is a recipe for disaster as there is the lure of them joining gangs or getting into trouble.

And not all are sitting around waiting for legal status to educate themselves. In fact, 10 states including Texas, Utah and Nebraska grant in-state tuition to undocumented youngsters.  The law would have legalized these students and create standards, while enabling these states to retain education revenue.  The Utah legislature had to backtrack on a plan to remove its in-state policy when it realized it risked losing 1.5 million in tuition revenue from those students had it reverted its policy. Indeed, immigrants wanting to educate themselves create real value to our economy and society that cannot be denied.

In the end, without a policy that would enable more to attend college, Americans would still lose out as our safety and security would be compromised by those opting a more dangerous route.  Furthermore,  the cost of prosecuting and deporting any youthful offenders would also bear a burden on our economy.  College and military seem like such a better alternative.  But on whose dime?

It seems to me that something has to be done. I do not have the answer and I am yet to see anyone present a humane, non-radical, cost-effective and doable solution. 

photo credit: Shuya Ohno

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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

Contact Jeneba Ghatt


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