Juliana Morris: Is the Senate Decision on the DREAM Act a Sign of a Sleeping Giant?
On Saturday December 18, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act, thereby blocking the legislation that would have given undocumented students brought to this country as children the chance to study in US universities and get on a path to citizenship.
This is a devastating loss for the entire country.
Under the DREAM Act, more youth from our communities would have been able to attend college and advance their education; our workforce would have gained more motivated doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, and other professionals; and our economy would have been bolstered by the additional contributions of DREAM students.
This most recent setback for the DREAM Act is a loss for all of us in the United States, but I would argue that the negative implications of the Senate’s decision are even broader than these immediate impacts.
While it’s troubling that the DREAM Act didn’t pass, what’s perhaps more troubling is the rhetoric that was used to ensure it didn’t pass, along with the fact that the American people were willing to stand for that rhetoric.
Senator Kyl of Arizona, in his long list of reasons to oppose the DREAM Act, included the following point:
“Chain migration… would result from this legislation because once the citizenship is obtained the individuals would then have the right to legally petition for a green card for their family members. And that means that the numbers here could easily triple from the 2 million plus that are estimated right now.”
What’s the underlying assumption driving this argument against the DREAM Act? It assumes that opening up a pathway to allow more immigrants (primarily immigrants of color from countries of high emigration) is essentially a bad thing, and bad for our country. This logic is misguided at best.
Currently, our immigration system is firmly rooted in the values of family reunification; it’s just how the system works. What lends credibility to an argument like Kyl’s is not the facts of our current frameworks for legal immigration, but rather a harsh anti-immigrant, and arguably racist, sentiment. He assumes that more immigration from traditional sending countries (such as countries in Latin America) is threatening and should be avoided.
Regrettably, the reason rhetoric like Kyl’s holds political water is that many people in the American public have similar assumptions. As anti-immigrant narratives become more mainstream (and are reinforced through the media and political campaigns), many Americans come to accept them as truth, and become blinded to their racist undertones. Even some who would purport to be charitable towards the needs of immigrants often buy in to the dominant ideology. It is this domination of anti-immigrant sentiment, the implicit assumptions that make it acceptable to spout off arguments like Kyl’s, that I find most troubling in the aftermath of the DREAM Act decision. Of course, there are detractors, but I would argue that the public conscience, as a whole, seems to accept anti-immigrant, racially-driven arguments, especially when they are cloaked in rhetoric.
But that’s not to say that there can’t be a rapid shift in the public conscience. Most of the anti-immigration arguments out there are based on misconceptions about the visa system and the history of immigration to this country.
Americans need to be educated about immigration; to understand its roots and the true benefit immigrants bring to our society and economy.
The rising power of a mobilized immigrant community, combined with the support of citizen allies, will be critical in carrying out more widespread public education, and shifting mainstream public opinion towards a richer understanding of the realities of immigration to the US.
With empowerment and education, we can make a difference.
Thirty six years ago, Senator Richard Russell stood up on the Senate floor and claimed that he would block the implementation of the Civil Rights Act, stating that, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states.” Now we look back and clearly see the racist assumptions underlying his statements. Public opinion has shifted considerably. If a Senator were to stand up on the floor today and say those comments, there would be instant public outrage among the American people.
I hope that soon, our public conscience will drive us to respond in a similar manner whenever anti-immigrant sentiment begins to hijack the national political agenda. Whenever racist ideologies are at work, I hope to see people of all colors and from all different backgrounds standing up, demanding that the human rights and civil liberties of everyone residing in the US be respected. In the meantime, I will not sit back and wait. The moral compass of the US will not shift unless we make it.
This post also appears on the Student Immigrant Movement web site. For more information, visit: www.simforus.com/