Dream a little DREAM: A solution to US illegal immigration that is fair to all

In US immigration debate, compassion for children brought here illegally by parents, and fairness to citizens and legal immigrants do not have to be diametrically opposed. Congress and Obama can grant lawful permanent resident status under a version of the now-defunct DREAM Act.

AP Photo/The Sun, Rick Sforza
Gladys Castro, 18, of Fontana, Calif., talks about the DREAM Act's failure to pass the Senate in September 2010. Ms. Castro, who calls herself an undocumented immigrant, was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, but had to delay her entry because she and her family couldn't afford the school.

Compassion and fairness – these are two of the seemingly incompatible competing concerns in the debate over US immigration. It’s a tension that has even played out in the heated contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Americans are called to compassion for young undocumented immigrants who, present in the United States through no fault of their own, are culturally Americans. On the other side, a sense of fairness and justice demands that all the aspiring immigrants and American citizens who obeyed the rules and waited their turn in line will not have to watch those who did not obey the rules skip ahead – and that American citizens and legal immigrants will not have to deal with the repercussions of illegal immigrants given legal residency.

Fortunately, compassion and fairness do not have to be diametrically opposed. Congress and the Obama administration can exhibit both compassion and fairness with the creation of a special category of “green card” or lawful permanent resident status under a version of the now-defunct DREAM Act.

The right to remain in the US legally is one of the greatest gifts that can be conferred on someone who is not a US citizen. Compassion – and common sense – empowers this country to grant a special class of lawful permanent resident status to someone who was brought to the US by others at a very young age and has grown up as an American. There should be limits to this compassion, though. Those receiving this act of grace should be barred from sponsoring other immigrants or becoming a full US citizen.

There are sound rationales for these limitations. If the recipient of lawful permanent resident status is deemed blameless for their being brought by parents to the US, then the people who are culpable for the illegal immigration – the parents – should not be able to benefit by having their child sponsor them to become legal permanent residents. A bar to US citizenship also places an onus on the beneficiary to comply with the criminal laws of the country. (It is possible for legal noncitizens to lose their status in this country because they engage in criminal activity.)

Similarly, America’s compassion – and common sense – must extend beyond granting legal status to the children of illegal immigrants. Steps must be taken to make sure that these children do not become a burden on the public dole or hurt the prospects of American citizens most at risk of losing their jobs to immigrants – the working poor.

This new Dream Act must thus require an educational achievement, such as a vocational certificate or college degree, as a prerequisite to gaining legal resident status. Portions of the fees collected for the processing of "new" Dream Act applications could be funneled to programs such as scholarships and job training that help the low-skilled and the uneducated – both citizens and legal residents – better compete in today’s global economy.

Fairness also gets its due under this scheme. Those individuals who emigrate legally have a shot at the ultimate prize – US citizenship. There are real differences between lawful permanent resident status and US citizenship that should not be devalued or underestimated.

Citizens can vote and affect the course of the government. Lawful permanent residents cannot. US citizens cannot be deported; they figuratively live in houses built on rock. Lawful permanent residents can be deported; they symbolically live in houses built on sand. Congress can change (and has changed) laws affecting lawful permanent residents on a whim. It can even make laws impacting lawful permanent residents that are retroactive in effect. Although lawful permanent residents may be eligible for some public assistance, this is the price of compassion.

In some cases, the current wait to immigrate legally can consume in excess of 20 years. By barring children who were brought to the US illegally from earning full citizenship, Congress and the president affirm to those who have attempted to immigrate through legal channels that there are benefits to doing it the right way – the opportunity to become United States citizens, to vote, and to immigrate others.

Mike Leppala was an assistant chief counsel with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Houston, Texas for 13 years.

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