I was at a social gathering over the holidays, and the topic of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act came up. It had just been defeated in the United States Senate. (Actually, in the arcane workings of that body, the Senate voted in favor of it, but not by enough, effectively putting it back on the shelf for another two years, barring some stunning change of circumstances.)
Most of the people in the room were surprised and disappointed that the bill hadn't passed, especially since President Obama was on such a roll in that lame-duck session. No one could figure out how congressional Republicans would agree to openly gay soldiers and a huge back-door stimulus package, yet draw the line at the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to legal status to some young people who were brought to this country illegally by their parents, and who wanted to remain in this country and perhaps work their way toward citizenship.
A longtime friend of mine, who is fairly well-known in local education circles, asked me why I hadn't written a column in favor of the act. I pointed out that Mari Herreras had done an outstanding job of covering the topic—and then there was also the small matter of the fact that I didn't really support the DREAM Act in its current form.
It was like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials where everybody in the room got quiet and leaned in to eavesdrop as he asked me why not. I told him it had been put to my "Wince Test," and it had failed (or passed, depending on one's outlook).
Have you ever been reading something or listening to somebody on the radio or TV, and you find yourself involuntarily wincing at a point that is being made? That happens to me every single time with the DREAM Act, which basically says that the aforementioned young people—who are here illegally, albeit through no fault of their own—can obtain legal status by either going into the military or going to college. I'm sorry, but every time I read that, it comes out as, "You can dig ditches, or you can get an ice cream cone, and both count exactly the same."
How is getting to go to college the same as going into the military? Both, in theory, will make one a better person and will benefit the country, but they aren't the same thing. Going into the military can often lead to life-or-death situations; going to college can lead to wet-T-shirt contests and the ingestion of copious amounts of caffeine in early December. (To be fair, if the gun worshippers in the Arizona Legislature get their way, our state's college campuses may soon be as dangerous as Kandahar province.) But I just don't understand how somebody (anybody!) thought that putting military service and college attendance together (and giving them equal weight) was a good idea.
We've all heard the individual stories of kids who would be helped by the DREAM Act. Many are touching; some are even heartbreaking. That doesn't erase the fact that somebody committed an illegal act, and it doesn't absolve people from dealing with the consequences. And it's hard to remain steadfastly heartbroken when the one story becomes 12 million or 15 million or 20 million stories. Local attorney Mo Goldman was quoted in this paper as saying that even conservative people change their views on immigration if it involves their nanny. But we don't all have nannies, and while one person can be a case, 12 million become an unavoidable issue. (I must mention that I once helped coach Mo Goldman in basketball, which is probably why he is now an attorney.)
Anyway, to my point: I think that President Obama should have the DREAM Act re-written to give those kids the choice between going into the military or doing some kind of domestic national service along the lines of AmeriCorps—work in hospitals, clean up parks, help teach young kids to speak English, or, heck, teach young kids how to speak Spanish. It wouldn't have to be volunteer work; they could get paid a modest sum. It would have to be for a decent amount of time, at least a year, and the successful completion of the commitment would help those young people who want to go to college get into and attend school.
I'm sure some will argue that it's not the kids' fault, so they shouldn't have to do anything. Well, my parents passed down fat genes to me, so why should I have to be the one who does the exercise to lose weight? They're in this situation because somebody broke the law, and here's a chance to make things much better for themselves and their descendents for untold generations to come.
This bold stroke would outflank those on the right and would put the president out in front on immigration reform. It would keep those kids who are currently in limbo from having to wait until 2013 (or beyond) for a glimmer of hope. And for those people (like me) who believe that you have to give something to get something, it would reaffirm the companion American ideals of compassion, responsibility and opportunity.