Immigration, Kids, Politics

The Impossible DREAM (Act): Why This Immigration Question Is Just A Distraction

“But they aren’t all valedictorians, they weren’t all brought by their parents. For everyone who’s a valedictorian there’s another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act.”

— Representative Steve King (R-Iowa), referring to DREAM Act beneficiaries last week.

Say what you will about Congressman King, he had the cojones to appear on the Univision show “Al Punto con Jorge Ramos” this week, an unusual move for an outspoken opponent of immigration reform.

While King was busy pointing out that kids can be drug mules, the rest of the House of Representatives has been debating proposed legislation called the KIDS Act, a variation on the Senate’s DREAM Act. “DREAM” is an acronym for “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors” (not to be confused with alien miners, which could be the premise for a Ridley Scott movie). The Act and its equivalent in the House would provide eligibility for a six-year-long conditional path to citizenship for qualifying young people whose parents brought them to the United States illegally.

The basic idea enjoys some bipartisan support, even if shakily so. Let’s agree, if only for the sake of argument, that this simple goal is a good one. Nevertheless, the DREAM Act and its progeny don’t work, and they distract lawmakers from the larger, more consequential immigration debate….

First, any version of the DREAM Act is unwise if it extends legal status to children who are brought into the country illegally in the future and does not simply grant legal status to current “alien minors.” Such a measure would (a) create perverse incentives for increased illegal immigration, and (b) risk endangering children.

Such a law would encourage parents to bring their children with them if they decide to illegally cross the border into the U.S., whereas parents might otherwise cross by themselves. Because these kids would be brought by parents who are entering the U.S. illegally, often crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the mode of entry will often be unsafe. Any increase in this practice increases the risk that children will be injured or killed.

Over the past 15 years, more than 5,500 immigrants have died trying to enter America, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. In 2012, 477 immigrants died while attempting to cross the Southwest border. According to Border Patrol numbers collected by the NFAP, between 1999 and 2012, immigrant deaths increased by more than 80 percent at the same time that apprehensions of illegal border-crossers declined by 77 percent. Even as apparently fewer individuals have been entering the country illegally over the past few years, the border has become increasingly dangerous for those who attempt to cross into the United States illegally. Our policies should not inadvertently encourage parents to put their children at such risk.

Of course, if entering the U.S. legally were an available option, fewer immigrants would die this way. However, that point speaks to the larger immigration question, not DREAM Act proposals.

Second, any version of the Act is unlikely to gain wide support because of disagreement over how to treat the parents of kids who qualify. A sticking point here should not be an excuse to stall debates over more important immigration issues.

Here’s the source of the disagreement. Many immigration activists want family members of DREAMers to gain legal status too. In a recent piece for Politico, Cesar Vargas, director of DREAM Action Coalition and a national activist for the DREAM Act, writes:

The KIDS Act represents a step backwards for Republicans. Even the bill’s very name is an insult: We DREAMers are no longer kids. We have grown as young adults in the country we call home. I am 29 years old, graduated law school and passed the bar exam. I have done everything that American society required of me. And one day, I hope to serve my country in the Armed Forces.

Fair enough. Vargas hardly sounds like the drug mule Rep. King fears. Again, lots of us can endorse not deporting young adults who did not choose to enter the U.S. illegally as minors and now participate admirably in American society. (Discuss amongst yourselves whether going to law school counts as evidence for or against. See also here.) Vargas continues:

While the details of [the proposed KIDS Act] are not yet public, what is certain is that the proposal, crafted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, does not unite families. The proposal prioritizes DREAMers for citizenship but leaves our parents without the same opportunity, leaving them in the shadows at a time of record deportations.

See, there’s the rub. Many activists refuse to support the DREAM Act unless it allows families to stay in the country too. Note that Vargas, for example, is 29. We are not here debating the deportation of custodial parents of minors while permitting the kids to legally remain. In short, it’s not that sort of breakup of families.

If you favor a path to citizenship (or “amnesty,” if you like) for all but a few immigrants currently in the country illegally, then a family provision in the KIDS Act looks good. But if you want bipartisan support, you won’t win much by demanding a family provision.

Those who oppose sweeping immigration reform are unlikely to be persuaded that people who chose to enter the U.S. illegally — i.e., the parents of “DREAMers” — should be permitted to remain without penalty, even if their kids deserve that chance. Unless you already want a path to citizenship for all, what’s so compelling about a 30-year-old living without his parents nearby? When else do we let the innocence and good behavior of adult children cancel out the knowing criminal conduct of their parents?

Even if the central idea behind the DREAM Act and the KIDS Act appeals to a large base, the family issue divides too deeply for either side to emerge from the debate satisfied. Immigration reformers won’t take less; anti-illegal-immigration stalwarts won’t give more. If we apply these rules to future children brought to the U.S. illegally, parents are likely to place their children at risk by bringing them across a treacherous U.S.-Mexico border, a border that will remain dangerous so long as immigration is limited as it now is.

What looks at first like legislation most of us can agree on turns out to be something that we should all agree is a half-hearted distraction from the bigger immigration debate. Why not focus our efforts on the more fundamental debate instead of getting caught up in the details of this one?

Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. She has clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and worked as a researcher for multiple projects on the intersection of cognitive science and law, including Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at

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