The Dream Act Is Good Legislation From A Self-Interested American Perspective

Reihan writes:

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.

I am part of the broad consensus that believes 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. And I urge my fellow citizens – or more particularly, our elected representatives – to pass The Dream Act. This is not because I want to send a signal that the children of illegal immigrants should be valued more highly than other people living in impoverished countries, nor do I believe that signal to be implicit in the legislation.

What I do think is that longtime residents of the United States brought here by illegal immigrant parents during childhood are in a unique position: through no fault of their own, they’ve long resided in a country where they don’t have a legal right to live or work (partly due to an incentive system set up by American citizens who are glad to employ illegal immigrants). It’s a tragedy for the affected kids. Economically they’re better off than lots of people in Third World countries who’d like to come here. But life is more than economics. Unlike would-be immigrants, potential Dream Act beneficiaries have developed friendships, formed romances, an invested themselves into communities in the United States. All that will be lost if they are forced to leave, and along with American complicity in their plight, those costs that factor into how I think about the legislation despite my not valuing people here already more than far away illegal immigrants.

And those costs aren’t just born by the illegal immigrant kids themselves! Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Reihan is right, and that when it comes to immigration policy we should do what’s best for US citizens and permanent legal residents. By that imperfect standard, Dream Act beneficiaries ought to be “valued” more highly than the impoverished resident of a Third World country. Compared to his counterpart somewhere abroad, the potential Dream Act beneficiary is almost certainly higher skilled. Having avoided legal trouble for many years, she is less likely to end up in jail than lesser known quantities. For anyone who values cultural assimilation, she is much farther along the path, if not fully assimilated. Most importantly, the ties the Dream Act beneficiary has to US citizens binds in two directions –– if he or she is given legal status rather than deported, there is a constellation of American citizen friends, lovers, neighbors, teachers, corner grocers, and employers whose loved one, friends or friendly acquaintances will be around for many years, rather than tragically deported or else living in the shadows, circumstances that’ll make some of the important stakeholders in this hypothetical very sad.

The self-interested American might also note that these culturally assimilated long time residents are relatively unlikely to be deported even if the Dream Act doesn’t pass, and that if they remain in the country anyway, society is worse off in various ways if they stay “in the shadows,” as opposed to living within our system of laws and communities of civic engagement.

Reihan seems to anticipate some of these objections, writing:

…would we yield a higher net number [of lifetime economic contributions to the United States] 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?

Again, I think this ignores all the non-economic benefits to American citizens of passing the Dream Act. Beyond that, if both the Dream Act and a program to welcome high skill immigrants to the United States yield a net economic and social benefit, why not do both? It isn’t as if the practical choice we’re faced with is “authorize the Dream Act or bring a lot of even more highly skilled immigrants to the United States to replace the folks who would’ve benefited.”

So far, I’ve failed to mention that Reihan’s whole post is framed as an argument against a Michael Gerson column. And I agree that Gerson’s approach to argument is weak and moralizing in a maddening way. I’m glad to see that once he looks past Gerson Reihan concludes as follows:

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.

I think that too is a persuasive argument for passing the legislation.