WASHINGTON -- Are we really that sort of country?
Are we really a nation so narrow-minded and nativist that we would deny citizenship to bright and talented young adults with the brains to become surgeons, engineers or astronauts? Are we so grimly determined to punish illegal border-crossings that we would deport young men and women who want to fight for the United States in Afghanistan?
Surely, we are a more generous people than that. Surely, we are a smarter people than that.
Yet, we are foreclosing an opportunity to welcome a group of young people with the promise of becoming stellar citizens. The DREAM Act -- a bill that would grant "green cards" to, in all likelihood, no more than 1 million of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants -- is in trouble. It narrowly passed the House last week, but its prospects in the Senate are poor.
An irrational hard line on illegal immigration has come to be one of the most important principles of the Republican Party, a position that its elected officials dare not flout. Only eight Republicans voted for the DREAM Act in the House, and Senate Republicans who used to support it have backed away -- no, run away -- from it.
Those include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was chief sponsor of the original Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act when it was introduced in 2001. Now, he fears a tea party challenge of the sort that claimed his Republican colleague from Utah, Sen. Bob Bennett, and he wants nothing to do with the bill.
There is something scarily shortsighted about this. Even as President Obama has stressed that our economy's fortunes depend on increasing the number of college graduates, our elected representatives would reject this young Harvard student, who wrote anonymously of her plight in an online publication, The Daily Beast:
"I'm a senior at Harvard and I'm undocumented. ... I was the valedictorian of my high school class and got full scholarships to the country's best schools. It is important that I point out I have been published in some of the top magazines and am currently working on a book, an excerpt of which has already been published."
We'd give the boot to Jessica Colotl, who has come close to completing her degree at metro Atlanta's Kennesaw State University. We'd kick out Marco (he didn't want his last name used), who studied engineering at Georgia Tech after earning a perfect score on the math portion of his SAT. And we'd reject countless other strivers who have heeded a familiar strain in American culture: Study, stay in school, work hard. That's the ticket to success.
Sen. Jeff Sessions. R-Ala., has called the bill a "reckless proposal for mass amnesty." It is nothing of the sort. It's a narrowly tailored measure that would apply only to people under the age of 30, who came to the United States before they were 16, and who've lived here at least five years. The vast majority of them were brought to this country by their parents when they were too young to know anything about immigration laws.
The legislation requires them to complete two years of college or military service and to abide by other laws to be eligible for a 10-year conditional residency. Because of its requirements, immigration experts think that about 800,000 illegal immigrants would ultimately be eligible.
After 10 years, DREAM Act beneficiaries could apply for permanent residency. After five years of permanent residency, they could apply for citizenship.
That series of steps -- at least 15 years before citizenship from DREAM Act provisions -- gives the lie to the claim that beneficiaries could become immediate sponsors to their undocumented family members. They couldn't. Besides, any family member who came here illegally has to go back to his country for 10 years.
Still, I suppose it's possible there might be 13-year-olds in Guatemala or Columbia who'd hire a coyote to cross the border illegally in order to get the opportunity to join the U.S. armed forces when they're 18 years old. If so, let them come.