When the right filibusters its own ideals to death

Conservatives revere the military, hate deficits and love states' rights. So why kill off the Dream Act?

By Joe Pace

Published September 22, 2010 12:30PM (EDT)

You may have missed it, but after railing against defense cuts and runaway spending, Senate Republicans united on Tuesday afternoon to kill a plan that would have strengthened the military and saved taxpayers billions.

For the fifth time in a decade, the Dream Act died in the Senate. It's one of those rare policy ideas that would benefit both the military and the budget -- and it's one that Tea Party-type deficit-hawk/hawk-hawks should have rallied behind. It was even a boon for states' rights. Yet, it became the latest victim of xenophobia and partisan politics.

The Dream Act (short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was designed to solve one of the most heart-wrenching injustices in our immigration system. Some 2.1 million undocumented immigrants were brought to the United States, through no fault of their own, as children. And despite having spent their entire lives here, their parents' illegal status prevents them from obtaining legal residency. The Dream Act would give these children a chance to "earn" their green cards, allowing them to apply for temporary legal status; then, if they maintain "good moral character" (at a minimum, keep a clean criminal record), graduate from high school, and either complete two years of college or military service, they'd obtain permanent residence.

Right now, there are stories aplenty of children who discover the cruel fact that they are deportable when they apply for their driver's license. Or of high school valedictorians who are snatched off planes and threatened with deportation because their parents never sorted out their paperwork.

Of course, those who would smear infants as "anchor babies" were never likely to be moved by these injustices. But a compelling case can be made that the Dream Act actually reflects many of the values that Tea Partiers and Republicans claim to hold dear.

For starters, the military loves it. When the act was first proposed, it gave beneficiaries a choice between college and community service. But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., worked closely with Pentagon officials to scrap the community service option and replace it with military service. Support from military brass was downright fawning. Lt. Col. Margaret Stock called Dream Act beneficiaries "a military recruiter's dream candidates for enlistment" because of their "foreign language skills and foreign cultural awareness -- a sentiment echoed by Bush Pentagon officials in 2006. A Center for Naval Analyses study concluded that they have lower attrition rates than citizen soldiers. Conservative military scholar Max Boot calls it "crazy" that we're not tapping into that pool of potential recruits.

The Dream Act was even cited in the Department of Defense's Fiscal Year 2010-12 Strategic Plan to help the military "shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force."

That's the guns argument. Now for the butter: The potential savings from implementing the act would be massive. Consider the costs of deportation. According to one estimate, it costs on average $18,310 to apprehend, $3,355 to detain pending deportation, $800 to legally process, and $1,000 to transport a single individual. That's $23,465, just shy of the yearly median income of a U.S. wage earner. The cost of deporting the 2.1 million people who qualify for the Dream Act would be a staggering $49 billion.

And that's only costs avoided. The Dream Act would also be a moneymaker for the federal government. The untold numbers of undocumented children that drop out of high school to eke out a living in the underground economy would suddenly have the hope of legal employment. The savings we would get are compounded: Not only would the act turn tax evaders into taxpayers, its incentives to continue their education would turn them into higher wage earners. That means more taxable income, less welfare expenditures.

It's even good for states' rights, the perennial rallying cry of conservatives. State universities typically charge higher rates for out-of-state residents to subsidize the tuition of in-state residents. But federal immigration law penalizes states that provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants by forcing them to extend those lower rates to all U.S. citizens, regardless of residency. Since that law came into effect, 10 states have offered in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, but at a steep cost. The Dream Act repeals that penalty. It doesn't force states to offer in-state rates to the undocumented; it restores their power to choose whether to do so by eliminating a federally inflicted financial burden. Tea Partiers should have been ecstatic; isn't freedom to choose policy what states' rights is all about?

So why was there so much opposition from the right?

One objection was process-based: A defense appropriations bill is an inappropriate place to implement immigration reform. Sen. Hatch's office called it a "cynical political stunt" and condemned Democrats for holding a defense bill "hostage to unrelated measures." And McCain agreed. Which is weird for a number of reason, the first being that both senators co-sponsored the Dream Act in 2003, 2005 and 2007 -- and that last time, they co-sponsored it ... as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill.

It's odd to hear Republicans fussing about putting immigration-related amendments in defense bills. House Republicans held up the 2007 defense appropriations bill to attach a measure that would make it easier to detain and deport immigrants. Just four months ago, in fact, McCain tried to attach an amendment to the same appropriations bill that would mandate the deployment of 6,000 troops along the border within 72 hours of the bill's passage. And unlike the Dream Act, Pentagon officials didn't play a central role in drafting the McCain amendment’s language.

McCain and co. also say that after almost a decade of support, they decided to oppose it because the American people want border security first. How giving green cards to veterans and college graduates who meet the Dream Act's onerous requirements interferes with border security is never revealed. And why couldn't they do both? Is the federal government really incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time on immigration policy?

And finally, there are those who reflexively howl "amnesty" and "giveaway" whenever immigration reform comes up. But an amnesty is for someone who has broken laws. Are we really prepared to condemn as lawbreaker someone brought into the U.S. as an infant? Or is it their expectation that 12-year-olds will leave their parents behind and trek back from whence they came in order to bring themselves into compliance with our immigration laws?

And on what planet is residency in exchange for risking your life on a foreign battlefield a "giveaway"? It's some wonder that conservatives, traditionally quick to find slights against the troops in innocuous statements, aren't taking offense at this. If a green card for service is a giveaway, what does that say about the sacrifices of the men and women in uniform?

The Dream Act is in keeping with three central tenets of the Tea Party/Republican platform -- love of military, loathing of deficits, and loyalty to federalism. Sadly, Senate Republicans let rank politics and xenophobia carry the day -- again.

Joe Pace

Joseph Pace is a recent graduate of Yale Law School and an associate at the D.C.-based litigation boutique, Coburn & Coffman.


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