The Agenda

Michael Gerson on the Dream Act

I don’t find Michael Gerson’s arguments concerning the Dream Act very persuasive:

Critics counter that the law would be a reward for illegal behavior and an incentive for future lawbreaking. But these immigrants, categorized as illegal, have done nothing illegal. They are condemned to a shadow existence entirely by the actions of their parents. And the Dream Act is not an open invitation for future illegal immigrants to bring their minors to America. Only applicants who have lived in America continuously for five years before enactment of the law would qualify.

But what of the billions of children condemned to relative poverty because their parents chose not to become unauthorized immigrants? According to Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett, migration is a highly effective means of achieving poverty reduction. An extraordinary 26 percent of people born in Haiti who live beyond the two-dollar-a-day standard live in the United States. 

As I understand it, the DREAM Act implicitly tells us that I should value the children of unauthorized immigrants more than the children of other people living in impoverished countries. If we assume that all human beings merit equal concern, this is obviously nonsensical. Indeed, all controls on migration are suspect under that assumption.

Even so, there is a broad consensus that the United States has a right to control its borders, and that the American polity can decide who will be allowed to settle in the United States. Or to put this another way, we’ve collectively decided that the right to live and work in the U.S. will be treated as a scarce good, just as we treat the right to access the spectrum as a scarce good. (Briefly, I think the case for treating the spectrum as a scarce good is much weaker than the case for treating the right to live and work in the U.S. that way, but that’s a separate issue.)

This means that we are departing the terrain of moralistic theorizing and entering the terrain of deciding what is best for U.S. citizens and, perhaps, lawful permanent residents. Gerson writes:

Opponents cite the cost of the Dream Act. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next 10 years due to increased tax revenue – then increase the deficit once a variety of federal benefits kick in. One group opposed to the law claims it will require $6.2 billion in education subsidies. A UCLA study counters that Dream Act beneficiaries would generate $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion in income during their working lives.

After perusing the study in question, I was impressed by the heroic assumptions made regarding the labor market prospects of potential Dream Act beneficiaries, particularly for those with no more than a high school diploma or a GED certificate. (Note: Beneficiaries with a high school diploma would have a ten-year-period during which they must complete two years of military service or two years of higher education. I’d be interested to know the costs associated with administering this program, and also if there will be an appeals process. How will we react to the spectacle of women and men in their late 20s being expelled from the country after spending most of their lives here? My guess is that this will lead to no small amount of moral outrage. Indeed, some will say that the DREAM Act implicitly promised these young people that they’d have a shot at living in the U.S. permanently, and the vagaries of life prevented them from fulfilling the obligations created under the legislation.) 

One assumes that the beneficiaries will eventually age, and draw on Social Security and Medicare, leaving aside other social services. Once we factor in real-world estimates of these and other costs, including the costs associated with the children of Dream Act beneficiaries, I assume that we’ll be left with a positive net number. 

Yet would we yield a higher net number if rather than legalize 825,000 or 2.1 million Dream Act beneficiaries, we instead welcomed 825,000 or 2.1  million workers with some combination of high levels of English-language proficiency, start-up capital, college and post-graduate degrees, and other markers of bright labor market prospects? 

Perhaps Michael Gerson will consider me morally reprehensible for asking this question. But if that’s true, surely it is also true that we are wrong to value American or Mexican lives over Togolese or Tajik or Pashtun lives. Gerson writes:

The outcome of this dispute depends on a more basic economic determination: Would this category of hardworking immigrants ultimately be an advantage to America or a drain? It is a principle of democratic capitalism and non-Malthusian economics that ambitious human beings are not just mouths but hands and brains. They are a resource – the main source of future wealth.

Again, it’s not obvious that Dream Act beneficiaries are the only ambitious human beings with hands and brains. By my rough calculation, there are roughly 6 billion of them, give or take a few billion scofflaws. There are hundreds of thousands of such ambitious human beings who apply for the diversity visa lottery in countries across the world. I imagine that many of their children are great people too. 

Once we enter the realm of justifying the Dream Act on grounds of the supposed economic impact, it seems fairly clear that there are alternatives that will prove more advantageous to the U.S. 

I can imagine a decent argument for the Dream Act, e.g., it is a wedge strategy designed to begin the process of earned legalization for the large population of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States, and we don’t have the will or the resources for a serious campaign of attrition or repatriation. That’s fair. But it’s not the kind of moral argument that Gerson is making. 

P.S. A colleague raised a good question, and it has been echoed by others:

But the DREAM Act beneficiaries are children. Surely they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their parents.

I agree. Again, there are young girls in East Africa who will be subject to ritual mutilation because their parents were not able to settle in the United States, and there are young girls in South Asia who will become the victims of disfiguring acid attacks for the same reason. Many of these children might have flourished in the United States. But we have collectively decided that the U.S. can’t welcome all of the people who would choose to live in this country.

But it’s wrong to send children who’ve known no other home back to “native countries,” particularly when they can’t speak the language of that country.

I absolutely think that it is reasonable and humane to offer assistance of some kind to the governments in question to aid these children and young adults to facilitate repatriation. That said, I do think it’s worth noting that there are palpable advantages to having lived in the U.S. for a long period of time that can translate in other environments. Our schools are far from perfect, but even the lowest-performing U.S. public schools perform well relative to K-12 schools in many middle-income countries, let alone truly poor countries. 

The U.S. is creating a class of stateless children by virtue of a policy of benign neglect that implicitly welcomed unauthorized immigrants.

This is a reasonable point. But one could easily characterize this as a strong case for clarity: unauthorized immigration will be taken seriously, and unauthorized immigrants need to understand that they are making a decision that will impact the lives of their children. As someone who has known many unauthorized immigrants, and more than a few people who’ve been deported or who’ve left the country rather than face the risk and the indignity of deportation, I don’t take this lightly. I just don’t think public policy should be organized around my sentiments. Rather, it should be based on a rigorous, unsentimental assessment of the options we have at hand. And it is my strong view that residents of HIPC deserve more priority than the children of unauthorized immigrants.

So do people from HIPC deserve the right to live and work in the U.S. more than native-born Americans like yourself?

Quite possibly. This, however, would require a radical revision of our constitutional order. Consider the sharp reaction to proposals to strip naturalized U.S. citizens of their citizenship if they were found to be affiliated with terrorist organizations that have wage war on the United States. Choosing to prioritize residents of HIPCs over unauthorized immigrants and their children would not require a radical revision of our constitutional order. 


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