TOPICS > Politics

DREAM Act’s Merits, Drawbacks and Future Debated

December 8, 2010 at 4:24 PM EDT
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Congress is set to vote on the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants who enter the U.S. before the age of 16 a path to legal standing via college or military service. Judy Woodruff leads a debate between Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress and Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
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JIM LEHRER: Another branch of the federal government was also dealing with immigration issues today. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The House of Representatives is debating and voting on the DREAM Act this evening, and the Senate is expected to vote tomorrow.

The act would offer young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The act has been a Democratic priority for the lame-duck session. DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. It would allow the children who enter the United States illegally before age 16 legal status to stay, provided they attend two years of college or enter the U.S. military.

Well, we get two views now. Angela Kelley is vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress. And Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Thank you both for being here.

ANGELA KELLEY, vice president for Immigration Policy and Advocacy, Center for American Progress: Thank you for having us.

MARK KRIKORIAN, executive director, Center for Immigration Studies: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we said, the House is debating and voting tonight, the Senate tomorrow.

But let’s talk about the whys and the wherefores, what the merits are of this legislation

Angela Kelley, you’re in favor. What are the main reasons this should be enacted?

ANGELA KELLEY: Sure. Look, this is a limited program. It’s for children and young adults who have to have been in the United States for at least five years. They’re children and young adults who came at the age of 15 or younger. They can’t be older than 29 to qualify.

And what it does is, it takes these kids who came through no choice of their own — their parents brought them — it puts them on a conditional path. For 10 years, they’re in a non-immigrant conditional status, can’t get benefits, can’t apply for their family members. They really have to stay on the straight and narrow.

After this period, presuming they meet the requirements, which include either going to college or serving in the military for two years, they can apply for residency.

It seems like it’s a reasonable program for kids who have grown up in the U.S., are very American. And it ensures that they’re working at, you know, Microsoft and not McDonald’s their whole lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark Krikorian, why is it a bad idea, do you think?

MARK KRIKORIAN: The DREAM Act, the actual piece of legislation, has a germ of a good idea and expands it into, frankly, really, a bad piece of legislation.

Clearly, those illegal immigrants who are brought here as very young children, as toddlers or infants, and have spent their entire lives here are a sympathetic group of people. There’s no question about it. Even they don’t have any right to amnesty.

I mean, their parents are the ones who are morally culpable for putting them in this position, but there is a case to make maybe for an act of grace on the part of the American people. The problem is, it’s very different if you came here at six weeks old and have lived here for the following 25 years than if you entered at 14 or 15, because you are not, in that situation, what the advocates say American in all but the paperwork.

It doesn’t — it doesn’t apply.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, your problem is just with the age?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying, if they just made it younger, that it would work? Is that what…

MARK KRIKORIAN: If it were — if they narrowed it dramatically.

And the other problem is that it really is an amnesty. And so the question is, it’s got to deal with the consequences that any amnesty has, which is attracting new illegal immigration and generating future legal immigration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s tackle both of those…

ANGELA KELLEY: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … but first the age question. Why 16 — 15?

ANGELA KELLEY: It’s 15.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not make it younger?

ANGELA KELLEY: I mean, look, I’m the mother of a 14-year-old, and I can tell you, she’s a kid. She has to do and go where I tell her to go and does, and supposed to do what I ask her to do.

So, look, we’re talking about people who came as very young people, they have already been here for at least five years. There is no magnet effect here, Judy. If people in Mexico are watching this debate and they’re thinking, hey, I can come over and get status for my kid, no way.

You have to have been here — let’s say it passes this month. You have — if you weren’t here in December 2005 or before that, you don’t qualify. So, there is not a magnet effect. This is for kids. These are for kids who we have already made an investment in.

And now we want to make sure that they’re paying their taxes, that they get a higher education, or that they serve in our military. It’s a very limited proposal for a very important group of people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as we’re hearing it described, it sounds like a methodical, step-by-step approach.

MARK KRIKORIAN: That is what Angie would have you believe.

The problem is several-fold. First of all, I mean, I have a 15-year-old. And if I were to take him and sneak in Mexico and live there, which, incidentally, is very difficult to do, because they’re much more serious about their immigration laws than we are, he would remain psychologically an emotionally an American, because, yes, he’s still a kid, but he’s already been — his identity has been formed here.

That’s why the advocates of the DREAM Act never trot out people who came at 14 or 15. They always present, trot out for the media people who came here at six weeks or 13 months old, and with good reason, because they’re the ones that will resonate with the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying there is an age at which this system would work?

MARK KRIKORIAN: There’s no magic number, but, under the common law and in the Roman Catholic Church, the age of reason is 7 years old. So, maybe if it was kids younger than 7, that you would have a much stronger case to make.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re back at the age argument.

ANGELA KELLEY: Yes. I mean, look, if this is what we’re down to, whether it’s age of reason, when you’re 15, or whether you’re 12, I mean, look, the point is, we have a broken immigration system.

This doesn’t begin to solve it, but this at least takes people who have been in the United States for at least five years, their kids. It makes them walk the straight and narrow, no federal benefits. They’re going to have to pay their own way, and they’re either going to have to go to college or they’re going to have to serve in our military.

This is why the Department of Defense supports this bill. Colin Powell, Secretary Gates, they support this bill. One hundred universities and college presidents have come out in support of this bill. It’s very narrow, and it’s for children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the education and the military benefits that she cited?

MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, the military is — that’s really malarkey. I mean, we have actually — the Migration Policy Institute has looked at the numbers. Maximum, at the absolute outside, maybe 31,000 people would end up enlisting.

It’s not even a drop in the bucket in the military’s enlistment. It’s really more a political effort to try to make it more palatable for Republicans. And, I mean, we haven’t really touched on the fact that it’s — there’s nothing in this bill that relates to enforcement to blunt the effect that amnesties have in pulling new illegal immigrants.

Angie was saying, yes, the bill doesn’t apply to people who are not here yet. That’s not correct. But that’s not the magnet effect that amnesties have. What they do is, they send a message that, come on in, keep your head down, and you will get the next amnesty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why wouldn’t that happen?

ANGELA KELLEY: Let’s talk first about the military. With all due respect to the Migration Policy Institute, I would rather vote with what the Department of Defense secretary has to say, what Colin Powell has to say.

And, frankly, the Department of Defense, in their strategic plan looking forward, what’s going to make our nation stronger, they recommend passing the DREAM Act. So, there is no doubt that there is a positive net effect for our military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, on the other point he’s making, about…

ANGELA KELLEY: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that this just opens the door and says, come on in?

ANGELA KELLEY: Yes, I mean, it’s a limited memory.

First of all, our Congress has already passed numerous enforcement measures this year. There is the biggest buildup we have ever had at the border. Secondly, there is no magnet effect to this bill. They want to have you believe that it’s an open-ended amnesty. What it is, it’s a limited program.

If you arrive, if you — you have to have been here for five years from date of enactment. If it passes this month, but you came in January 2006, you don’t qualify.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We have only got, I think, a minute or so left.

Let’s talk about the politics of this. Prospects for it, we understand, look good this evening in the House, tomorrow, the Senate, much tougher. Where does this go from here?

MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, the Senate — the House isn’t even all that guaranteed. I mean, it’s less — it’s more positive for the bill in the House, but, even there, it’s still iffy.

The Senate is — very unlikely it’s going to pass. This is really a last-gasp measure. They have had two years to present this, have hearings on it, all of that. They never did it. Now, in the lame-duck, it really smells of desperation.

ANGELA KELLEY: It’s a bipartisan bill. It was introduced by Dick Durbin and Richard Lugar.

There are 10 sitting senators right now who are Republicans who have supported this bill in the past. It’s been around for 10 years. Will they do the right thing tomorrow? I don’t know. I hope so.

But here’s what we do know, is that they can pass by on this issue, but the issue isn’t going away. And, at the end of the day, it’s going to take Democrats and Republicans to solve it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if it doesn’t pass this year, prospects in the future even tougher, a Republican majority in the House. Is there some prospect of a compromise?

MARK KRIKORIAN: I don’t see any amnesty legislation coming up in the next Congress, so the next two years. So, 2013 would be the soonest anything like this would come up.

ANGELA KELLEY: You know, I worry that this issue is going to fall like many issues that need to be solved, but it’s going to get caught up in the gridlock of Washington.

I think that the Senate will have a smart and sober debate on this next year. I’m not so sure about the House of Representatives, based on who is going to be taking charge of the Judiciary Committee. But this is an issue that — this is a political one, quite frankly, that any — any member who is seeing how the demographics are changing in this country has to recognize that it’s important to the Latino community, and they’re going to watch how people are or are not voting on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

Angela Kelley with the Center for American Progress, Mark Krikorian with the Center for Immigration Studies, thank you both.

ANGELA KELLEY: Thank you so much.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Thank you.