WASHINGTON — Stay in school. Work hard. Make good grades. If you do those things, you can go to college and earn a good living.
All over America, teachers repeat that mantra in their classrooms. Parents say it, too. So do coaches, bus drivers and Boy Scout leaders.
It’s no accident that as many as 13,000 illegal immigrants are attending college in the United States. Brought to this country as kids, they have become completely Americanized, absorbing the language patterns, habits and dreams of the ambitious among their native-born classmates.
Just as their teachers urged, they stayed in school. They worked hard. They made good grades. They enrolled in college.
But unless Congress passes the DREAM Act, their good behavior may not be rewarded. Any day, they could be arrested and scheduled for deportation to a country they barely know.
That’s what happened to Jessica Colotl, a Kennesaw
State University student who was arrested in March after a routine traffic stop on campus. She was shipped off to a deportation facility, where she was held until protests from academic leaders and immigration activists bought her a reprieve. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement have said she will be allowed to finish her degree, but she is still subject to deportation when she’s done.
(That doesn’t go far enough for some Georgia lawmakers. Next month, the State Board of Regents will consider a proposal to ban illegal immigrants from the state’s most selective universities. Several legislators want to ban them from all post-secondary education.)
A similar fate awaits Harvard University student Eric Balderas, who was arrested in June while trying to board a plane back to Boston after visiting his family in Texas. Balderas, who hopes to one day become a cancer researcher, was valedictorian of his San Antonio high school class.
Why aren’t we proud of the all-American accomplishments of Colotl, Balderas and the thousands of students like them? There can be no rational argument that they have refused to learn English or that they represent a permanent underclass. So why don’t we embrace them as future Americans?
Instead, we’ve succumbed to nativist resentments, refusing to acknowledge how much the country needs more college-educated workers. While critics of illegal immigration insist that the country should concentrate on importing workers who are already highly skilled, that’s no substitute for growing our own college grads.
An Indian or Chinese engineer, admitted on an H-1B visa, may decide to work here a few years before returning home.
But kids like Balderas and Colotl consider themselves Americans. They have no intention of returning to countries that are foreign to them. So why not grant them citizenship under certain strict conditions?
The DREAM Act would not be a lure for countless undocumented workers hoping to get a foothold in the U.S. It is narrowly targeted to kids who entered the country before they turned 16, have been here at least five years and have exhibited good moral character. If they complete two years of college or military service, they’d be eligible for a path to citizenship.
Still, the legislation has run into strong headwinds. When a vote came up in the Senate this week to attach the DREAM Act to a defense bill, it failed. Even Utah’s Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, who in 2007 supported a similar ploy to introduce a nearly-identical bill, refused to vote for it. Hatch told The Salt Lake Tribune that his constituents want government “to secure our borders.”
That’s a reversal from a position that Hatch held earlier this year, when he reportedly told a public forum: “If they’ve lived good lives, if they’ve done good things, why would we penalize them and not let them at least go to school?”
The problem is, we’re not just penalizing them. We’re hurting ourselves, too.
Interviewed Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was born to Jamaican immigrants, said as much: “We can’t be anti-immigration. Immigrants are fueling this country. Without immigrants, America would be like Europe or Japan with an aging population and no young people coming in to take care of it. We have to educate our immigrants. The DREAM Act is one way to do that.”
It’s too bad Hatch doesn’t have the courage to remind his constituents of that.