D.R.E.A.M. Act Encourages Double Standard but Lacks Effective Immigration Solution.

    In a simple world, the
    line between right and wrong is as clear as the difference between black and
    white But, the world is not so simple
    and necessity forges some uncomfortable moral compromises.

    There are powerful economic
    and safety reasons to follow the speed limit, for instance — but that doesn’t
    mean people do it. Congressmen are elected on no-tax, no-spend platforms, only
    to find their local constituency’s needs
    justify a few pure-pork line items; and various affirmative action schemes
    attempt to counteract discrimination by discriminating. All are compromises of
    some basic principle, rationalized for the sake of the greater good.

    Such a compromise was
    the California Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which
    would have permitted undocumented students to apply for noncompetitive
    financial aid. But even if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not vetoed SB 1, such
    a compromise might have proved to be one too many.

    The D.R.E.A.M. Act was
    essentially a sister bill to 2001’s AB 540, which allowed undocumented
    residents to pay in-state tuition for higher education (if they meet certain
    requirements). That bill carefully skirts a 1996 federal law that prohibits
    offering higher education benefits to undocumented residents, on the basis of residence, unless those
    same benefits are available to legal residents. Because AB 540 requires only attendance at a state school, rather
    than residency in California, the bill deftly sidesteps the restriction.

    By mimicking that
    strategy, this year’s rewrite of the D.R.E.A.M. Act allows undocumented
    immigrants to apply for noncompetitive
    higher education benefits. In so doing, it avoids federal restrictions that
    prevent undocumented residents from competing with legal residents for higher
    education funds.

    Despite the technical
    legality of both AB 540 and SB 1, the net effect of the bills is undeniable:
    They give funds to illegal residents that might otherwise be available to legal
    residents. The argument that the state has already set aside funds, as advanced
    in an Oct. 10 Los Angeles Times editorial,
    is a polite way of dodging this fact.

    Why should illegal
    immigrants be given the same benefits as legal immigrants? Why should
    non-taxpayers be given the same benefits as taxpayers? It’s difficult to argue
    against such positions.

    Instructively, similar
    arguments have been lobbed by the top tax bracket against the lower echelons.
    The top 5 percent of taxpayers pay the lion’s share of the federal budget, yet
    they have proportionally little sway over how that money is spent. Why should
    top-tier taxpayers be forced to support the wants of those who hardly pay taxes
    at all? Applied to taxes, this argument falls on deaf ears for one simple
    reason: It’s hard to feel too bad for someone who makes over $174,000 a year,
    no matter what percentage of the national revenue pool they may finance.

    And this is precisely
    why that same argument falls on deaf ears when applied to immigration. The
    stark visual contrast between the suburbs of California (median annual wage:
    $34,000) and waterless shantytowns clinging to Tijuana’s hillsides (median
    annual wage: $10,000) takes the wind out of any abstract argument about
    “fairness.” It would never sit well that a person born in San Ysidro should be
    afforded all the benefits conferred by American citizenship, while someone born
    just down the street should be denied those opportunities.

    With a federal quota
    that limits the number of visas issued each year, visa applications from Mexico
    are backlogged anywhere from two to 20 years, depending on the applicant’s
    family status. No one with a heart can blame would-be immigrants from
    circumventing that hurdle, and no one with a brain can argue that they wouldn’t
    try the same were the situation reversed.

    But in this case, empathy
    can lead us astray. One cannot appeal to the notion that we are all the same
    while simultaneously requesting special treatment. Supporters of the D.R.E.A.M.
    Act and similar legislation are compromising their long-term beliefs — equal
    opportunity for all people — for the sake of short-term benefits, in this case
    allowing a small number of people to apply for limited financial aid.

    While the D.R.E.A.M.
    Act might have proved a godsend to the 700 or so UC students that would have
    benefited from it, establishing assistance programs for those who have crossed
    the border illegally — and who do not pay income taxes — creates a festering
    resentment among those who came here legally and do pay income taxes.

    That resentment
    creates an “us-versus-them” mentality, already exacerbated by differences in
    language and culture and which can be seen in the reactions of nativist
    Americans and the counterreactions of pro-immigrant groups. (Browse the forums
    of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, for instance, or hunt out some
    non-moderated forums for real eye-openers.) Once established, these divisions
    are almost intractable.

    As long as the gulf in
    economic opportunity exists between Mexico and the United States, there will be
    immigration; and as long as visa quotas exist, there will be illegal
    immigration. No amount of concrete,
    barbed wire, or Immigration and Naturalization Service agents will change this.

    Any meaningful
    immigration reform must tackle one or both of these issues, and be addressed on
    the national stage. But by expending political capital in sympathetic border
    states like California, pro-immigration groups may find themselves losing
    larger battles over the forces that shape immigration.

    Want to expand the
    number of visas that can be issued in a year, a move that would instantly
    improve the lives of thousands of would-be migrants, and simultaneously
    encourage law-abiding immigration? Good luck getting that past a nation that is
    already embittered about financing the medical and primary education bills of illegal
    immigrants.

    Perhaps the $1.2
    billion plunked down (so far) for the expanded border fence might be more
    productively spent as an investment in Mexico’s economy, reducing the drive to
    immigrate in the first place? Again, fat chance. Attacking the fence plan last
    Monday, Mexican president Felipe Calderon argued that the United States and
    Mexico should be “building bridges, not fences.”

    Creating an
    institutional double-standard between legal citizens and undocumented residents
    is no way to do that. Rather than continue to press for ultimately minor
    victories like the D.R.E.A.M. Act, these immigrants should gird themselves for
    the national battles that will be more difficult — but ultimately more fruitful
    for everyone involved.

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