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Mariela Olivares

Excerpted from: Mariela Olivares, The Impact of Recessionary Politics on Latino-american and Immigrant Families: Schip Success and Dream Act Failure, 55 Howard Law Journal 359 (Winter 2012) (176 footnotes omitted)


Looking back, DREAM Act proponents and advocates wonder what more could have been done to secure the legislation's passage in 2010. But, in an era of recessionary belt-tightening and scapegoating, the DREAM Act was doubly doomed.

First, the DREAM Act was a casualty of recession-era politics in which programs aimed at helping the poor are at heightened risk of being slashed from budgets. Critics assailed the program for helping illegal aliens achieve the benefits of citizens, including working legally in the country. Such efforts were criticized as taking jobs away from real Americans, who were suffering high rates of unemployment.

Yet, in comparison to the success of the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization, the cost for the passage of the DREAM Act in the form of lost employment opportunities seems to be a fiscal bargain compared to the $33 billion additional dollars allocated to the SCHIP program for 2009 through 2013. Although there are no credible estimates of the costs of these jobs being taken from Americans, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that, over ten years, the 2010 House version of the DREAM Act would result in a $1.7 billion increase in revenues. Thus, despite this disparity in budgetary impact, the SCHIP reauthorization survived the recessionary pinch while the DREAM Act failed.

Rather, the critical difference between SCHIP success and DREAM Act failure is the second--and true--reason for the demise of the DREAM Act. As a measure targeted specifically to provide the privileges and benefits of lawful residency to immigrants who are unlawfully present in the United States, the DREAM Act faced harsh and hostile anti-immigrant trends. Opponents of the DREAM Act ignored the purpose of the Act and discounted the character and potential of the intended beneficiaries of the legislation, deeming the program amnesty for lawbreakers.

Importantly, like the main narrative in the SCHIP reauthorization debate, the DREAM Act is also about the future of America's greatest resource: its children. DREAM Act proponents and the dreamers themselves--i.e., those students who would have benefitted from the legislation--took to the streets and congressional hallways to lobby for their future. Politicians argued that the children had no blame in coming to the United States illegally or remaining in unlawful immigration status in the United States. Impressive students, like Maricela Aguilar, came forward to humanize the political debate, putting themselves in harm's way by inviting removal from the country after identifying themselves as undocumented. In all of these venues and activities, DREAM Act proponents worked to emphasize the importance of its passage for the children that were directly affected by the legislation.

In the end, however, the narrative of the child needing protection as America's greatest resource could not overcome the power of the undocumented immigrant--or as she is more commonly known, the illegal alien. Unlike the SCHIP reauthorization debates of 2009 in which focus could be soundly placed on the effects of the legislation for poor and modest-income children and away from the new benefits in the 2009 expansion of SCHIP to immigrant children and pregnant women, there was no overshadowing that the intended--and indeed only--beneficiaries of the DREAM Act were undocumented immigrants. Thus, in a twisted irony, one of the most marginalized, subordinated, and disenfranchised communities in the United States, that of the undocumented immigrant, wields an impressive ability to sway legislation.

To be sure, the DREAM Act was no panacea for the plight of the undocumented immigrant in the United States. Eligibility requirements for the Act's benefits were daunting and out-of-reach for all but a small percentage of the undocumented immigrant population. Professor Michael A. Olivas notes that in 2006, the population of enrolled full- or part-time undocumented students that were potentially eligible for immigration relief under the terms of the DREAM Act was approximately 50,000 to 60,000 people. Considering that the undocumented population was estimated in March 2010 to be around 11.1 million people, the effects of the DREAM Act would have amounted to a figurative blip in the immigration reform movement. Thus, the DREAM Act would not, in numeric terms, actually affect the future of many immigrants, nor would it amount to a large-scale grant of immigration relief for undocumented immigrants.

The demise of the DREAM Act, then, was about more than the number of undocumented immigrants who were allowed the benefits and privileges of lawful residence in the United States. In recession-era politics, when politicians search for scapegoats, the undocumented immigrant is an easy target. As undocumented immigrants are a politically voiceless population with no right to vote, it was convenient for politicians and their constituents to lose common sense in the DREAM Act debate.

The effects on immigrants, though, are devastating. Immigrant families are increasingly pushed into second-class status, which is exacerbated if they are also people of color. Facing struggles with language and cultural differences, immigrant families often live beyond the margins of United States society, trying and hoping to succeed in this country. Without a legal and stable immigration status, an undocumented immigrant is unable to secure work authorization in the United States and cannot legally obtain employment. Thus, higher-paying jobs typically elude undocumented immigrants, many of whom come to this country in pursuit of better lives for them and their children. The DREAM Act would have provided this opportunity for the children of these undocumented immigrants-- i.e., opportunities for stable immigration status through higher education or military service. In turn, these successful young people could help support their families.

Yet, the failure of the DREAM Act signals that even the most hard working, bright, and patriotic of immigrants are not welcome to share the benefits and privileges of lawful residence in the United States. For a young undocumented immigrant who had no choice but to come to this country and now knows no other home, what more can he do to achieve his American dream than do everything right? In sum, even after years of academic success through high school, college, or even after three years of law school, the undocumented immigrant is back where he started. He, like most undocumented immigrants, is working (if at all) illegally and at low-paying jobs in the non-professional sector, exacerbating the financial condition of immigrants in already distressing recessionary times. This result ignores the important contributions these talented and loyal could-be-Americans would make to this country's workforce, social and political communities, and military.

. Assistant Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law. LL.M., Georgetown University Law Center; J.D., University of Michigan Law School; B.A., University of Texas at Austin. The author thanks Janie Chuang, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, and Cynthia R. Mabry for their helpful and insightful comments; Julie Balovich for her ideas; and Nadine Mompremier for her excellent research assistance.