Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The DREAM act

So, over the course of my Christmas break I got into a few lively discussions regarding the DREAM act  and its moral, economic, and legal implications.  It seems to me that in order to discuss this I have to clean up some misconceptions that seem to have invaded the popular viewpoint.  (I'm choosing to believe that some of these myths have been perpetuated in good faith by lawmakers who have not had an opportunity to review each successive revision of the act, rather than purposeful misinformation.  I am fully aware that such a choice is naive to the point of complete idiocy)

Misconception #1:
This is a general amnesty for illegal immigrants:

This, and weaker forms (granting resident status to young illegal immigrants in perpetuity &c) is commonly bandied about, and is entirely untrue.  The bill (as it was when it failed to break through filibuster in the senate late last year) would have applied only to people who were between the ages of 15 and 30 at the time of enactment, and who had been brought into the country prior to the age of 15.  Further, it applied only to non-felon, high school degree or GED holders who agreed to enlist or were accepted into a four year educational institution.  There are a host of further limitations (as listed in the linked wikipedia article, and repeated in its references), but those are the most commonly overlooked.  Basically, no one who has not yet immigrated would benefit from this law.

Misconception #2:
This would burden states and/or the federal government by allocating federal and state funding to educational loans and grants for the children of illegal immigrants:

In an early form of the bill, a special provision of federal law explicitly preventing states from choosing to allow in state benefits to apply to the children of illegal immigrants would have been repealed.  Note that this would merely have permitted states to decide the issue themselves.  This clause was dropped in its entirety from several recent revisions.

Misconception #3:
This bill would change the lives of a huge number of people:

Okay, so this depends a little bit on your definitions, but the estimated pool of beneficiaries is 7,000–13,000 which in a country of 307 million people is vanishingly small.  Now, apparently, there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in america so even considering that pool alone, it's a small number of beneficiaries.

I think those are the big ones.  Anyway, as I'm sure you're guessing by now, I'm in favor of this legislation or something like it.  The basic reason for this is that no matter which way you stack the arguments, I have a hard time coming up to a version which gives a strong moral reason to exclude these people from the proposed benefits.  Let's look at some common arguments against:

1. Moral Hazard
The gist of this argument is that by passing this bill, we encourage future illegal immigration (which is assumed to be detrimental to our society and is, at the very least, against the law).  Now, Moral Hazard is a pretty strong argument in general.  We probably shouldn't do things that encourage people to misbehave.  If law is supposed to incentivize good behavior and disincentivize bad behavior then it seems obvious we need to consider issues of moral hazard when enacting legislation.  However, as stated in Misconception #1, this isn't a general amnesty.  There's no good reason to believe that the passing of this bill provides material incentive for additional illegal immigration.  New immigrants wouldn't benefit from it.

2. Personal Responsibility
Many people argue (and this is encouraged by the language around the debate) that this bill is giving benefits to wrongdoers.  Basically, it somehow shows favoritism to illegal immigrants over legal americans.  I want to consider this separately for the illegal immigrant parents and their children.

We tend to agree that you need to be choosing to do something in order for you to be criminally liable for an action.  The children of immigrants have about as much choice about coming to the country with their parents as kidnap victims do, so let's just drop the idea that they are criminals for entering the country.  So, they didn't commit a crime coming here.  In their current situation, they are denied things other non-crime-committing residents of the united states have access to.  Since the targets of the dream act are explicitly non-criminal, long term residents, with demonstrated commitment to programs deemed by the nation to be in its interests (higher education and military service) it seems pretty difficult to argue that the kids should be given different treatment.

UNLESS it helps the parents:
The parents are criminals.  They illegally entered the united states, and arguably, providing the kids with tuition benefits (or really any benefits) contributes materially to the well being (or at least peace of mind) of the criminal parents.  Or so the argument goes.  I actually concede that point, it does contribute to their well being, and they are criminals, but consider this: we provide the benefits (and by benefits we really mean nothing more than the basic rights afforded to any legal resident of the country) to the children of all felons murderers and rapists who had the fortune to be born here.  It seems that if the key word is "illegal" here, then we should really be denying citizenship rights to the progeny of all criminals, in order to avoid providing benefits to their progeny.  Now, I acknowledge there's a difference between a murderer and an illegal immigrant, in that the illegal immigrant might have committed their crime explicitly to better the lives of their children, whereas I suspect only a very small percentage of murders have the same motivation.  Perhaps the state has an interest in thwarting that aim.  But I would argue that it shouldn't thwart those aims at the expense of the innocents.  If a man steals food for his family, he may go to jail, but we don't cut off that family's food stamps as well.

This post is already rather long, so I think I'll end it now.  Hopefully it's of interest to some of you.


  1. So my friend Mike (not the one who posted a post above), made a comment which is similar to points my mother has made. The point is basically that it wouldn't be punishing an innocent illegal immigrant to treat them as a Mexican immigrant for the purpose of deciding enlistment and college enrollment eligibility. One might argue that it would be discriminatory against Mexican nationals to fail to provide such equal treatment.

    I have a lot of things to say about this, but am too tired to say them. I just wanted to record his objection so future Rory can speak to it.

  2. Your concern for the innocents is admirable. However, I believe that opposition to the Dream Act is not based on a lack of concern for the innocent children of illegal immigrants. It is based on a desire to encourage people to live by the rule of law. People generally enter the country illegally in the hope of a better life and greater opportunity. The creation of a path to amnesty even for a relatively small number of illegal immigrants increases this hope. Each act of amnesty creates both a precedent for future legislation and a reason to expect that illegal entry will be accepted and legitimized in time. This legislation does nothing to prevent future illegal immigration nor does it provide a legal path to entry that does not expose these innocent children from the unscrupulous people who engage in human smuggling for profit.

    Opposition to the Dream Act is also based on a desire for fairness. Is it fair to withhold the benefit of in-state tuition from legal out of state residents and foreign nationals who wish their children to come to the US for education under student visas and at the same time offer these benefits to the children of illegal aliens? The children of out-of-state residents and foreign nationals also did not choose where their parents live. Since many of the countries from which illegal aliens come do not have free public education, consider that the States have already provided them free education up to high school education. How far should this subsidy go? Should we only add undergraduate education or should we also subsidize their graduate or professional education at taxpayer expense?

    In addition, in most cases the majority of the financial responsibility for college education is the responsibility of the parents. Thus the parents are also beneficiaries of the lower tuition rates. How does this law hold them accountable for their illegal actions? Are they asked to return to their country of origin in order for their children to receive these benefits? Perhaps we should require that beneficiaries of subsidized American education return to their country of origin and engage in Nation building for the same number of years that they have received subsidized education here. That policy would improve conditions in their native country thereby reducing the need for mass exodus to the USA for a better life.

    I believe that providing the benefit of a legal path to citizenship to persons who enlist is the military is more arguable since these individuals make sacrifices for the benefit of our country that justify the extension of the benefits of citizenship to them.

  3. I agree that there might conceivably be some argument that having done a limited amnesty once might encourage other people to try to get here again. That ship already sailed, since a wide scale immigration amnesty already passed once in the 80s. One thing to note is that having a good economy seems to be the most important factor in illegal immigration rates. We had almost no net gain in illegal immigrants in the past couple of years thanks largely to a crap economy. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/01/AR2010090106940.html) I don't think its reasonable to say we should sacrifice the economy to disincentivize illegal immigration, and I think the well being of innocent children is more important than the economy, so probably we shouldn't let that be trumped by illegal immigration disincentives either.

    As I clearly said in my post, the DREAM act in its december form (passed in congress, filibustered in the senate) made NO PROVISIONS FOR TUITION. This is a non-issue and anyone saying it was in the bill was at best confused and at worst lying. In either case they were irresponsible and negligent of their duties as legislators.

    The benefit was extended only to people accepted into a four year institution or enlisted in the military. We seem to think that more college educated folks and more people in the service are good for our country.