Over the past few decades, the debate over how to handle the growing number of illegal immigrants in the United States has dominated the political scene. While the United States has been built as a melting pot, its citizens have not always reacted positively to the large influx of immigrants entering the country. Legislation was first introduced in 2001 as the Immigrant Children’s Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act. Reintroduced in 2011 as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, this legislation attempts to solve an especially testy and prevalent issue within the larger problem of illegal immigration—the question of what to do with the children of the illegal immigrants.
Most of the time, these children were not the ones who chose to flee their homeland for the United States; their destinies were decided for them. Since arriving in the United States, many of these children have been raised as Americans, attending school and assimilating themselves into American culture. The only aspect of being an American they lack is citizenship.
The DREAM Act would open up the doors of permanent residence, and even eventual citizenship to these child aliens, as long as specific contingencies are met. If an unauthorized immigrant enters the United States before the age of 16, the DREAM Act would allow them to obtain and keep conditional permanent residence as long as the person earns at least a two-year degree or commits to serve in the U.S. military. The DREAM Act also contains a provision that would allow states to determine whether public universities may grant in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants.
In order to fully understand the political and social dynamics of the DREAM Act, it is important to first briefly look at the history of immigration and the United States’ historical attitude toward those immigrants. Resistance to immigration has not been limited to those in the Hispanic linguistic cohort; Chinese, Irish, and Italian immigrants have all faced similar barriers to immigration. Since the 1880s, immigrants in the United States have been met with hostility. Common complaints about immigrants have been that they take away jobs or lower wages, increase the population in poverty, and create too much competition within social programs.
This trend of xenophobia has never fully dissipated from American culture. The prejudice and unacceptance of immigrants, especially toward unauthorized immigrants, has remained characteristic. These attitudes have merely shifted from group to group throughout history. In the 21st century, the most prevalent violators of U.S. immigration policy have been Hispanics, or Latinos, that is, people of Latin American descent residing in the United States. Salvadorans, Haitians, and Colombians are all components of this group of people; however, the largest volume of illegal immigrants derives from the United States’s immediate southern neighbor. More than one-third of illegal immigrants in the United States originate from Mexico.
While the rise in illegal immigration can be hard to measure, one of the ways to illustrate its volume is by noting the amount of apprehensions the U.S. Border Patrol has made over a period of time. Apprehensions occur whenever the U.S. Border Patrol arrests a person who is in the country illegally. The amount of border apprehensions serves as a proxy for the size of the illegal migrant flow. In the entire decade of the 1920s there were only 128,000 apprehensions documented in the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s database.
This number rose to 147,000 in the 1930s, and 1.4 million in the 1940s. Although the United States became much less isolationist during World War II, it still had strict quotas and regulations placed on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country annually. After the war ended there was an increased demand for agricultural workers; as a result, the Bracero Program was created. This program admitted temporary agricultural workers from Mexico in order to meet the rising demand for labor. The program ended in 1964.
The expanding demand of agricultural labor can be one of the factors attributed to the extreme increase in illegal immigration. The majority of these aliens, especially those from Mexico and Central America, are motivated by the large disparity of wages and availability of work between their own country and the United States.
Discussion of History of Policy
As the total amount of illegal immigrants increased, the U.S. government enacted several different programs and policies in order to combat both illegal immigration and restrain legal immigration. One of the first immigration initiatives came about in 1954, around the time when illegal aliens from Mexico were starting to dramatically increase in number. The initiative was called Operation Wetback and used several different special tactics, which resulted in the rounding up and deportation of over 1 million illegal immigrants. In 1964, the Bracero Program was terminated due to unsatisfactory living conditions; however, by terminating one of the only legal forms of Mexican immigration to the United States, this policy succeeded only in increasing the flow of Mexicans crossing the border illegally in pursuit of work.
On November 6, 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed under President Ronald Reagan, who worked with Republican senator Alan K. Simpson and Democratic representative Romano L. Mazzoli in order to establish bipartisan support. IRCA granted amnesty to many aliens while simultaneously cracking down on the employment and hiring of illegal immigrants. All illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before January 1, 1982, became naturalized citizens, and an employee’s citizenship information became a requirement in order to hold any form of employment. Instead of terminating employment of illegal immigrants, however, the act created a loophole. The hiring process was augmented to hire these aliens indirectly through subcontractors.
Although many Americans expressed outrage toward these illegally employed aliens, the U.S. government has hardly acted to stop employers from recruiting and hiring workers who lack documentation. While border apprehensions have remained historically high, the number of arrests made of subcontractors or other companies hiring illegal immigrants has remained low.
The first attempt to pass legislation to deal with the children of illegal immigrants was introduced in 2001 by Representative Luis Gutierrez. The bill was replaced with a modified version that garnered wider support in the House of Representatives. The Senate answered the same year with its own version, introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch. The bill aimed to adjust the status of certain long-staying alien children, lower high school drop-out rates for certain immigrant children, and restore the right of state and local governments to decide whom they will admit to their state and local colleges and universities. However, this bill was never passed by Congress. In 2007, Senator Dick Durbin attempted to pass the DREAM Act in its entirety for the first time. It failed, again, and was reintroduced in 2009. In 2010, the bill was filibustered in the Senate and therefore was never able to come to a vote. Barack Obama made the DREAM Act one of his top goals during his presidency, as of 2013 was not able to sign it into law. Taking matters into his own hands, Obama passed an executive order that discontinued the deportation of all young illegal aliens whose criteria matched those of the DREAM Act. A new effort to change the immigration laws and go further than Obama’s executive order was placed on the agenda in 2013. The bill would potentially provide an expedited pathway to citizenship for young immigrants in the United States and expand the visa program to accommodate more highly-educated workers.
The DREAM Act would give young immigrants the opportunity to live, work, and attend school in America, but it also offers tangible benefits to the nation as a whole. Proponents of the act believe that it will contribute to the military’s recruitment efforts and readiness due to the incentive undocumented aliens have to join the armed forces. It is also believed that granting amnesty to qualified candidates will make the United States more competitive in the global economy. The Congressional Budget Office has determined that the DREAM Act in its current form will cut the deficit by $1.4 billion and increase government revenues by $2.3 billion over the next 10 years. Proponents also believe that the DREAM Act will aid in national security efforts by allowing American immigration and border security experts to focus on more serious threats to the nation’s security, such as terrorism.
Applications for immigration into the United States have always exceeded the number of admissions the quotas allow. Therefore, many find it unfair that these illegal immigrants are granted a road to citizenship while so many other candidates await legal entry, a process that can take many years. Under this argument, illegal immigrants are essentially being rewarded for breaking the law, and honest people are losing their opportunity to immigrate as a result.
- Dorsey, Margaret E., and Miguel Díaz-Barriga. “Senator Barack Obama and Immigration Reform.” Journal of Black Studies, v.38/1 (2007).
- Hanson, G. H. “Illegal Migration From Mexico to the United States.” Journal of Economic Literature, v.44/4 (2006).
- Muste, C. P. “The Dynamics of Immigration Opinion in the United States, 1992–2012.” Public Opinion Quarterly, v.77/1 (2013).
- S. Congress. “Legislative Background on the DREAM Act: Recent Action in Congress. Congressional Digest, v.89 (2010).
- S. Congress. “Should Congress Pass the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act?” Congressional Digest, v.89 (2010).
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