DREAM Act would reduce deficit, strengthen military...and perhaps save the world

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Last December, when the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act came up five votes short in the Senate, advocates began to worry that this seemingly modest piece of immigration reform, which offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who do well in college and/or serve in the military would not be able to get the necessary votes, even with Barack Obama as President. Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s Chief of Staff up until last October, was reportedly criticized by some for allegedly not doing enough to support immigration reform. And frustration was high, as the community was forced to petition U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) each and every time they heard that a well-performing student, with no criminal record, like Steve Li or Mandeep was about to be sent to a country that they barely knew--taking their education and knowledge of the United States with them.

But six months later, the DREAMers (undocumented students who want to serve their adopted country) are refusing to take “no” for an answer. (In December, Steve Li won a reprieve, and last week ICE decided not to deport Mandeep, who was voted in high school as "most likely to save the world." ) And now Emanuel, who was sworn in as Chicago’s mayor in May, is raising his voice in support of the DREAM Act, which Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has been fighting for immigration reform for more than a decade, is sponsoring. And they are hoping to turn the tide and get Republicans to vote for legislation they say will reduce the deficit, build up the military and perhaps, by not deporting young U.S. trained geniuses, even save the world.

“The DREAM Act is consistent and reinforces the values of citizenship,” Emanuel said during a June 27 telephone call with reporters on the eve of the U.S. Senate’s first-ever hearing on the DREAM, which Durbin will chair June 28. “Having a DREAM Act pass at the national level will help us reinforce the right type of values,” Emanuel continued, noting that Colin Powell, a retired four-star general who was Secretary of State under President G.W. Bush, and Obama's retiring Sec. of Defense Robert Gates, both support Durbin’s bill

Rahm was joined by Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Margaret Stock, a former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in arguing that the DREAM Act will stimulate the economy and benefit themilitary, by allowing thousands of top-performing U.S.-educated youth to give back to their adopted country rather than face deportation to countries they barely remember, where they could fall victim of forces that don’t have America’s interests at heart.

As former head of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan said he met plenty of students who “happened not to be born in America” but had excelled in public schools, only to find the door slammed shut, when it was time to go to college. “We need to summon the courage and political will to do the right thing for our country,” he said.

Duncan pointed to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Vargas, whose story about his life as an undocumented immigrant was turned down by the Washington Post, before the New York Times magazine published it this weekend. “How many other Pulitzer Prize winners are there out there?” he asked.

And former West Point professor Margaret Stock explained that many of the DREAMers have great potential as military recruits, but are barred from enlisting, even though some of them try to anyway, under the current system.  "They are patriotic, honorable and want to serve the country,” Stock said.

Some of these potential recruits won’t qualify, because they have asthma or physical impairments, Stock noted. But she predicted that those that do, will do very well, based on a Pentagon study that showed that legal immigrants who enlist outperform U.S. citizens. And that, Stock added, could help fill the recruitment gap that is coming, as the economy recovers, and the U.S.-born population continues to age.

Records show that the military hasn’t had any difficulty meeting its goals since the economy tanked, a few years ago. But Stock predicted that the U.S. Armed Forces will face a difficult recruitment climate, as the recession ends. Unless the DREAM Act, which would dramatically enlarge the number of potential military recruits, passes.  “It would allow us to tap into a pool of homegrown talent that is highly motivated to join,” she said.

Asked what the point of the June 28 hearing is, given that the Republican votes for the DREAM Act still don’t seem to be there, Secretary Duncan, who will testify June 28 on behalf of the DREAM Act with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Clifford Stanley, the Pentagon Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, replied,” to continue to raise awareness and build a groundswell of support.”

“I don’t think anyone has given up hope that we can do the right thing,” Stock added. “What may have changed is the serious talk about reducing the debt. “
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According to a December 2010 Congressional Budget Office report, enacting the DREAM Act would save an estimated $1.3 billion over the next ten years. Supporters say that in addition to helping the military, the legislation would help fill 3 million job vacancies in the fields of stem cell, science and mathematics.
And as Stock pointed out, it makes no sense to deport large numbers of U.S. educated youth to foreign countries, where they risk being recruited to work for foreign governments against the U.S.’s best interests.

Asked whether new military recruits are really needed, now that Obama has announced a troop draw down in Afghanistan, Stock said that taking troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t really reduce the global situation. “We constantly face crises in which we need the intervention of the U.S. military,” Stock said.

“We’re not turning into an era of full peace, and we expect to see a ten percent decline in pool of eligible recruits,” she said, noting that 35 percent of the U.S. citizens who sign up for the military fail medical fitness tests, another 18 percent fail because of drug and alcohol abuse, and 5 percent have criminal conduct problems.

“So, a crisis is coming, even with the draw down,” Stock continued, noting that the population of legal green card holders remains “relatively flat” even as the numbers of those who are legally here but can’t get a green card, and the numbers of those without documents but willing to serve, grows.

Stock noted that when you deport young people to countries they barely know and where they have no social safety net, they are in danger of being recruited by folks who might be at cross purposes with the United States. “The rise of MS-13 is directly related to our deportations to Central America,” Stock said. “The gang became their social network.”

Stock acknowledged that DREAM Act eligible students are “highly educated, high quality Americanized people,” and aren’t likely to become members of a gang. But they could be of interest to foreign militaries and intelligence organizations, she warned.

Asked how many non-citizens who are in the U.S. legally enlist in the military each year, Stock said about 9,000 non-citizens. But she noted that while documented non-citizens can join the military, they are however barred from becoming officers or attending West Point. “Most jobs are not open to them,” she said.  In other words, the DREAM Act doesn’t change the military’s requirements. But it would allow a much bigger number of non-citizens to join the military and eventually become citizens, which, in turn, would open more doors to them in the military, too.

And so ended the press conference ahead of Tuesday’s first-ever Senate hearing on the DREAM Act, which reportedly is being held in a large hearing room to accommodate at least 200 student supporters, including the daughter of a family of Albanian immigrants who was valedictorian of her Michigan high school class and is currently fighting deportation.

"These are young people who have that kind of exciting look in their eyes that they want to be part of the world," Durbin, whose mother was a Lithuanian immigrant, recently said. "But they can't make that first move toward the life that they want to live because they are undocumented."

Predictably, the DREAM Act is being used as a recruiting tool for conservative groups, who argue that the DREAM is tantamount to amnesty for folks whose parents broke the law. These groups are already battling state-level Dream Act legislation in Maryland, which does not provide a pathway to citizenship but provides in-state tuition for qualified undocumented students. But a poll from Opinion Research Corporation in June 2010 found that 70 percent of likely voters support the DREAM, including 60 percent of Republican likely voters.

With the next election already looming, DREAMers aren't likely to let up the pressure any time soon...so this could be an interesting political ride. Let's hope it ends well for all the young people who are currently stuck in the middle of this Catch 22-like situation.