Erik Camayd-Freixas: The DREAM Act and the wealth of nations: An educator’s perspective

Against all odds, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, many with honors. They are among America’s brightest, most driven and underprivileged. We have invested much in their K-12 education, and they have much to contribute to our society.

National identity and allegiance are established during adolescence. This is their homeland. Brought here as minors, they have broken no law, yet are deprived of legal status through no fault of their own. Now these meritorious graduates cannot go to college, get a driver’s license, or hold a legal job. What exactly do our lawmakers expect them to do?

Their parents risked everything to flee life-threatening poverty and lack of personal safety. They bring the immigrant’s resolve and determination, ambition and work ethic on which this country continues to be built, generation after generation.

Migrant parents take our toughest, most dangerous and worst-paid jobs, which create higher-level opportunities for Americans. They step in at businesses and farms so American youth can opt for higher education and 21st-century professions, making our country more competitive in the global economy. They do so in hopes that their own children will get ahead and do great things.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner,” said Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), “but from their regard to their own interest.” And when Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835), sought to unveil the secret of our success, he found it was enlightened self-interest that prompts us to assist others and work for the common good.

The DREAM Act would grant conditional status to talented, crime-free youngsters who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here at least five years, and enroll in college or the military for at least two years. Yet they would not be eligible for in-state tuition, scholarships, Medicaid, food stamps, permanent residency or sponsoring family members for at least 10 years.

This fifth version of the bill, introduced Nov. 30 by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as a concession to Republican opponents, is disappointing. Still, Republicans have vowed to filibuster until the Senate extends Bush-era tax cuts for the rich.

If passed, an estimated 800,000 high school graduates from marginalized and persecuted families, living in fear of incarceration and deportation, will have a fighting chance to pursue their interests and fully contribute to what Tocqueville once called “the most enlightened and free nation on earth.”

A statistical certainty, many of these dreamers would become doctors who save American lives (perhaps yours or mine), war heroes who defend their country and teachers who provide our children the knowledge and opportunity denied to them.

I came here as an 8-year-old with my Cuban-Lebanese father, a penniless widower with a fifth-grade education who never learned English. Because this once-enlightened country gave him the opportunity to work, which he did seven days a week, I was able to earn a Harvard PhD. Now, as an American, I can defend my country’s fundamental values, both in the classroom and the press.

Ten states have longstanding laws granting undocumented residents not a handout, but a leveled playing field: in-state tuition and limited financial aid. Studies show that this has not reduced opportunities for citizens. The College Board, which stands for equity and access, and every serious educator in this country, support the DREAM Act.

This should not be a battle between Democrats and Republicans, educators and politicians. There is no political, economic, rational or moral justification for withholding education from the poor.

Erik Camayd-Freixas is a professor of Hispanic studies at Florida International University.


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