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

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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