Dreaming of Equality

As the Voces newspaper goes to print, the DREAM Act, a bill that provides a path to citizenship for immigrant youth who enroll in college or the military, passed the US House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 216-198. The House bill will be taken up for a vote in the US Senate and needs 60 votes to go to the President to become law. During the House debate on the DREAM Act, opponents of this bill made assertions that ranged from outright lies to blatant racist rhetoric.

The most cynical of all the arguments is the economic one. Incoming US Chairman, of House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-TX), made statements such as “How can we be passing this bill when 10% of Americans are unemployed?” and “For every dollar we give an illegal, an American loses a dollar.”

Lamar Smith does not care about the unemployed American worker. In fact, he was part of an obstructionist effort to oppose extending unemployment benefits in order to leverage tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

Thanks to the $13 trillion Wall Street bailout , this privileged 2% of the population now receives an estimated three quarters of the returns to wealth (interest, dividends, rent and capital gains). This is nearly double what it received a generation ago. In 2005 the wealthiest 1% earned more income than the bottom 50 percent of Americans. The opponents of DREAM are not worried about the American worker. They are worried about corporate America and the very rich.

It is irresponsible for a politician to claim that children are to blame for declining living standards when it was Wall Street’s reckless pursuit of profits, multinational corporations’ pursuit of cheap labor, and tax breaks for the rich that are responsible for the suffering so many working class families are experiencing.

Some congressional representatives wondered how these students could prove they are here and would lead to a broad “amnesty”.

Isn’t it ironic that one of those is Congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, who will head the Chair of Subcommittee on Immigration and has promised that once he is in power he will pursue IRS and SSA databases to identify undocumented workers?

This law would not lead to “amnesty”. Immigrant youth are the only ones eligible for the DREAM Act. The only hope for their parents would be through passage of federal immigration reform. DREAM Act beneficiaries would have to wait for ten years under a conditional nonimmigrant status before they would be able to adjust to a lawful permanent resident status and three more before becoming US citizens in order to petition a close relative.

But even that does not address how our current immigration system is broken—over the years Congress has reduced legal avenues for workers and their families. Low numbers of visas for certain countries, backlogs and arbitrary laws such as having to leave the country while your papers are being processed or a ten year ban if you entered the country without authorization, means families have to choose between living apart 10-20 years while their paperwork is processed or living in the shadows with the daily threat of being separated from their families.

The racially charged rhetoric surrounding the DREAM Act is best illustrated by one Republican congressman’s statement that: “This is an affirmative action amnesty nightmare that favors certain ethnic groups.”

In fact the DREAM Act, as it was modified, maintains institutional discrimination against immigrant students: charging them out of state tuition rates even if they have lived in their respective state almost their entire lives and their families contributed to the tax base of our public schools.

It denies them important federal support, such as Pell Grants, which are vital for low-income families who want to pursue higher education.

The real nightmare is politicians like Lamar Smith and Steve King who are willing to deny opportunities to talented youth so they can shift anger and attention away from their own complicity in helping pass laws that have created the greatest gap in social inequality since the Great Depression.

This month, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate had risen once again. A full three years after the current recession began in December 2007 there is no end in sight as to when the jobs markets will recover. This is in stark contrast to the full recovery of corporate profits and bankers’ bonuses–now roughly back to what they were in 2006-07.

As we welcome in a new year of action and resistance, Voces de la Frontera and our allies will keep fighting to ensure that the dreams of the wealthy do not take priority over the dreams of students and families during these hard economic times.

This post is also available in: Spanish