I have a lot of respect for my friend Reihan Salam, but boy was this frustrating to read:
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.
So look, there are two basic ways to look at a political issue: on the policy merits and on how it fits into broader ideological narratives. On the policy merits, the case for DREAM is simple and compelling: there are hundreds of thousands of kids who, through no fault of their own, are trapped in a kind of legal limbo. We should provide them with some way to get out of that legal limbo. I can think of any number of ways to improve the DREAM Act, but this is the only bill with a realistic chance of passing Congress in the near future, and it’s a lot better than nothing.
Reihan’s objects that “we’ve collectively decided” that the opportunity to live and work in the United States “will be treated as” a scarce good. I suspect he’s chosen this weird passive-voice phrasing because he knows better than to straight up claim that the opportunity to live in the United States is a scarce good. It’s not. We should let the DREAM kids stay here and we should be letting a lot more kids from poorer countries come here. Doing the one doesn’t in any way prevent us from doing the other.
OK, so that’s the policy substance. Now let’s talk about the politics. Reihan’s position here is superficially similar to my stance on the Founder’s Visa: I opposed it because it was a largely symbolic gesture that will help only a tiny number of people (many of whom don’t especially need it) while reinforcing a political narrative I find odious: that having more foreigners around is a burden we’re willing to accept only if those foreigners provide large benefits to Americans. Reihan is, I take it, making a roughly similar claim: that DREAM helps a relatively small number of people, that the people it helps aren’t necessarily the most deserving, and that DREAM reinforces an objectionable political narrative.
I don’t think any of these claims stand up to scrutiny. On the first two points, DREAM is simply not in the same league as the Founder’s Visa. The Founder’s Visa would help a tiny number of unusually privileged would-be immigrants. DREAM would help a much larger number of relatively poor (by American, if not world, standards) immigrants.
So that brings us to the core political question: does passing DREAM “implicitly tell us” something we’d rather not be told? This is where I think Reihan is furthest off base. From my perspective, the fundamental question in the immigration debate is: do we recognize immigrants as fellow human beings who are entitled to the same kind of empathy we extend to other Americans, or do we treat them as opponents in a zero-sum world whose interests are fundamentally opposed to our own? Most recent immigration reform proposals, including the Founder’s Visa and the various guest worker proposals, are based on the latter premise: immigrants in general are yucky, but certain immigrants are so useful to the American economy that we’ll hold our collective noses and let them in under tightly control conditions.
The DREAM Act is different. The pro-DREAM argument appeals directly to Americans’ generosity and sense of fairness, not our self-interest. The hoops kids must go through to qualify for DREAM are focused on self-improvement for the kids themselves, not (like the Founders Visa) on maximizing benefits for American citizens. There’s no quota on the number of kids who are eligible, and at the end of the process the kids get to be full-fledged members of the American community.
Nothing about this says that we should “value the children of unauthorized immigrants more than the children of other people living in impoverished countries.” I wish Congress would also enact legislation to help children of people living in impoverished countries. If Reihan has a realistic plan for doing that, I’ll be among its earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. Unfortunately, I think the political climate in the United States makes that unlikely to happen any time soon. But that’s not the fault of the DREAM Act or its supporters. And voting down DREAM will make more ambitious reforms less, not more, likely.