The Magazine

Put Out the Welcome Mat . . .

for illegal aliens' children who grew up here.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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WHEN CONGRESS resumes in January, it should right a long-standing wrong in our immigration law: the punishment of hapless children whose parents brought them to America illegally, but who have never known any other land. One way is to pass the "DREAM" Act, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid-autumn with strong bipartisan support.

As chairman Orrin Hatch recognizes, it's one thing to whack illegal adult immigrants. It's another to blight the lives of hard-working youngsters who want nothing more than to be full-fledged citizens, but are blocked by laws designed to punish their miscreant parents.

An estimated 50,000 "undocumented" kids graduate from U.S. high schools each year. "Most," Hatch says, are "honest and hard-working adolescents . . . [but] find themselves caught in a Catch-22 situation. As illegal immigrants, they cannot work legally. They are also effectively barred from developing academically beyond high school. . . . We have a choice to either keep these talented young people underground or give them a chance to contribute."

"Alex" is one such youngster. A babe in arms two decades ago when his teenaged parents slipped into California, he grew up in tough Los Angeles neighborhoods, attended troubled public schools, and has never been back to Central America.

Yes, his parents messed up. They entered illegally and failed to apply for papers or take advantage of amnesties. His father--an abusive sort--always said they would return to Guatemala. Now he's dead. His mother recently married an American and acquired a green card, but that would only help Alex if he were under 18. Meanwhile, his three younger siblings are all legal. So is his own infant daughter.

I came to know Alex when we took part in a PBS documentary that uses his painful saga in the L.A. schools to frame today's hot policy wrangles over testing and school choice. The producer and I were drawn to this young man by his keen intellect, self-awareness, and compassion. A reader and a poet, he's striven to be a surrogate father to his brothers and sister. Lately he's found work in nursing homes, where he entertains elderly residents with games, poems, and cheerful company. He charmed education secretary Rod Paige at the premier of "A.K.A. Creek: Educating a Big City Schoolboy," the award-winning film that recounts his tale.

After years of school system bureaucrats and heedless teachers, Alex has earned his GED and is close to winning a proper diploma while also supporting a wife and baby. He'd be fine college material. But he can't go without financial aid, which he can't get without papers. Nor can he get a driver's license, health insurance, a better job--the list goes on.

Eager to see whether he could be "legalized," my wife and I engaged an immigration attorney, who found a series of cul-de-sacs like those Hatch outlined. Unless the "DREAM" Act or something like it passes, Alex's only hope of avoiding deportation is to find a member of Congress willing to sponsor a rare "private bill"--another avenue we're pursuing.

The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act allows young people to apply for a 6-year grace period if they were under 16 when they entered the United States, have lived here 5 years, and graduated from high school. During that period, they qualify for in-state tuition and federal loans and cannot be deported. They can apply for green cards after completing two years of college or serving in the military. The DREAM Act is a tightly crafted, one-time relief measure that the Urban Institute estimates would transform up to 13,000 young people into legal Americans.

In Alex's own words (written for congressional consideration if we get to the "private bill" stage): "Why do I still dream of becoming a citizen? With my limited social and economic capacities, I have already managed to do a fair amount to advance myself, my family, and my country. I can only imagine the good I might be able to do for the country that I've loved and called my own ever since I knew my own name. I've made my share of mistakes along the way but I believe my accomplishments outweigh my defeats. All I ask for is the opportunity to give something back to the country that has given so much to me."

His fate under current law, however, is to be deported to the land of his birth, where, the Washington Post reports, "about 60 people are killed every week in Guatemala City alone," due to violence brought on by drug trafficking and "a broken justice system that investigates as little as 3 percent of all crime."

The Bush administration has taken no position on the DREAM Act. A few gutsy Republicans--including Hatch, Arizona congressman Jeff Flake, Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley, and Foreign Relations chairman Dick Lugar--have risked the ire of their party's nativist claque by offering carefully crafted solutions to this and other vexing immigration problems. Predictably, Democrats embrace such changes. One might suppose GOP leaders with an eye on 2004, mindful of the swelling number of voters who are legal immigrants or their kin, would see some advantage in passing these measures.

But politics aside, young lives hang in the balance. My friend Alex's is one of them.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.