Thursday, October 28, 2010

Educating immigrants

As I noted yesterday, the US immigration authorities take a dim view of those who vote without being citizens; it displays poor moral character. It is less obvious what their take is on undocumented immigrants who avail themselves of other forms of political expression.

The New York Times Magazine had a fascinating story last weekend about undocumented college students: Coming Out Illegal, describing their efforts to engage in political action without being expelled from the country. Fortunately, and to the immense credit of the immigration authorities, the Times notes that "the Department of Homeland Security has so far spared undocumented youth who have been arrested during Dream Act protests."

The story centers around the Dream Act, a legislative proposal dating back to 2001 (and most recently reintroduced last month by Senators Durbin, Lugar and Leahy), which would allow immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, have been in the country for years (at least 5), and have graduated from high school in the U.S. or obtained a GED, to obtain conditional permanent residency (a green card).

According to the Migration Policy Institute (as cited by the Times), these conditions may apply to as many as 825,000 people. Those people would need to either serve in the uniformed services or attend college in order for the permanent residency to become truly permanent. Those who oppose the Dream Act argue that it is a form of amnesty, and may create additional incentives to those considering entering the United States illegally.

Even taking into account economic conditions and the political sensitivity of immigration issues, however, it is hard to see much of a downside to the act: it is not as though there is currently a giant surplus of people willing to serve in the armed forces, and the U.S. unemployment rate among people with a bachelor's degree is less than half that among those with no college. As for attracting additional immigrants, the current version of the act requires that candidates have been present in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to its enactment. Moreover, virtually nobody who today claims that the 1986 Immigration Reform Act (which applied to far more people) was a bad idea or failed to work as intended argues that it attracted large additional numbers of immigrants. It seems rather doubtful, then, that the much narrower Dream Act would do so.

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