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A DREAM is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Immigrant Youth and Economic Crisis

In the atrium of the Hart Senate Office on Tuesday, a group of immigrant youth held up a sign that read "Undocumented and Unafraid." The graduation caps they wore were a defiant testament to their suspended hopes. They were demanding that Congress pass the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would provide a path to legal status for undocumented youth who pursue a college education in their adopted homeland.

It's not a cure-all (see the dubious military service provision). But it is a small escape hatch from the legal quagmire wrought by the country's dysfunctional immigration laws.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that talking immigration reform is a political third rail in the midst of a recession. The wisdom of youth, however, defies political temerity. Risking arrest, the protesters on Capitol Hill sent the message that, while all young people have been set back by the recession, the combination of an immigration crisis and economic stagnation threatens to extinguish the aspirations of a whole generation of new Americans.

Countless undocumented youth are effectively barred from college because of government restrictions on tuition aid. Others are shut out of the workforce because they lack papers. Many have spent nearly their entire lives in the United States, working and studying hard to fulfill the deferred dreams their parents carried with them over the border. But as the government continues its ruthless campaign of mass deportation, their 18th birthday leaves them in a legal dead end: at best, a prospectless future, and at worst, detention and deportation. An estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants, who have lived in the country for five years or longer, will graduate from high school this year and walk off the precipice of a broken immigration system.

So by coming out as undocumented, groups of young protesters have repeatedly shown just how serious they are about redeeming their American Dream.

Renata Teodoro, a student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who managed to remain in the country and pursue her education after her parents were deported back to Brazil, told the Washington Post: "I'm not going to lie and say that I'm not afraid of someone coming in and trying to arrest me, but I can't let that fear take over my life... The only way of people finding out about my situation is to tell my story."

The DREAM Act would be just one limited facet of comprehensive immigration reform, and according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, the benefits would only reach a portion of those eligible due to various economic and social barriers. Nonetheless, the bill could:

  • Immediately make 726,000 unauthorized young adults who meet the legislation’s age, duration of U.S. residency and age at arrival requirements eligible for conditional legal status (with roughly 114,000 of them already eligible for permanent legal status after the six-year wait because they have at least an associate’s degree).
  • Allow 934,000 children under 18 to age into conditional-status eligibility in the future, provided they earn a U.S. high school diploma or GED.
  • Extend the possibility of conditional status, provided certain educational milestones are achieved, to another 489,000 unauthorized immigrants between ages 18-34 who meet the legislation’s age and residency requirements but lack a high school diploma or GED.

It's hard to argue against the concept of providing basic educational opportunity to hardworking young people (who had little say in how their parents entered the country, and who may not even know the language of their birthplace).

Yet “DREAM Activists” may also want to step back and look at how their plight folds into a generational dilemma. Outside of legal access to education, other systemic barriers remain: neither legal status nor a (debt-laden) college degree shields young people from a storm of economic despair.

According to a recent report by the Congress Joint Economic Committee, as of April, unemployment among young workers aged 16 to 24 with a high school diploma approached 25 percent (that's not including discouraged workers who've stopped looking). The advantages of education were further offset by structural racism; Black college grads were saddled with a 16 percent unemployment. Unemployment for young Latinos varied greatly, but among those with some college credentials (many DREAM'ers fall into this category), joblessness was somewhat worse for Latinos than the overall rate.

As dismal as the job market is for all youth, though, the added barrier of immigration restrictions puts already sparse opportunities further out of reach for undocumented students. In the long run, even if the DREAM Act does pass, the government must also take proactive steps to make sure that their success in avoiding an immigration crisis isn't then squandered by economic crisis.

On the plus side, the mass mobilization fueling the DREAM Act campaign will boost more than just undocumented students. A surge of driven, politically empowered immigrant youth in the economy would add urgency to the discussion about a comprehensive national jobs program. Picture a WPA-like youth job corps, as proposed by the Center for American Progress, which would help alleviate the pain of the recession while connecting young people to meaningful work. Add to that the social impact of putting native-born youth to work alongside newly legalized peers, fostering a racially integrated workforce that generates shared opportunity rather than ever-tightening competition.

Just as immigration reform would only be a net gain if linked to stronger labor protections for all workers--so the DREAM Act would be another lost opportunity if not coupled with social policies that would give all young people a fair shot at realizing their dreams.

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