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Why DREAM is still a nightmare

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Esther Cepeda
May 3, 2012
— In December 2010, after the DREAM Act fell five votes short of passage in the Senate, it was understood that the issue would be dead for a while, and that Hispanics would go to the polls in 2012 and punish those who voted against the legislation.

I noted at the time that while politics and heated anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric were two main culprits, the failure of the law—which would have created a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants—was, above all else, the fault of a terrible economic situation in which no extra competition for limited jobs was welcome.


Today Democrats are on the defensive as Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican seen by some in the GOP as a magnet for Hispanic voters, leads a push to introduce a modified version of the DREAM Act that would allow temporary legal residency status but no path to citizenship.


Though it has been reported that some immigrant activist organizations are talking with Rubio and this has inspired counter-lobbying from the White House, administration officials needn’t get too upset.


In fact, neither should the far right of the Republican Party, which has begun hyperventilating at the thought of any type of an “amnesty” scheme.


The reason is painfully simple: The jobs situation is no better than when the DREAM Act failed.


According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s 16- to 19-year-olds face the same 25 percent unemployment rate as in December 2010. The unemployment rate for those 20-24 has improved only slightly: 15 percent in 2010 compared to 13 percent now.


Workers older than 25 with only high school diplomas face an 8 percent unemployment rate—about 2 percentage points better than in December 2010. It’s much worse for recent graduates. The Associated Press has some stomach-churning figures based on 2011 Current Population Survey data. They show that 54 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees and younger than 25 were jobless or underemployed last year—the highest share in at least 11 years.


This presents a huge obstacle for those legislators who truly believe in the need to offer relief to illegal immigrant youths who have spent most of their lives in this country. How will they sell voters on the possibility of bringing an estimated 1.2 million DREAM Act-eligible young people into direct competition with U.S.-born citizens and legal immigrants for jobs and college assistance funds?


Take it a step further and consider the pickle facing calculating politicians who embrace a no-citizenship DREAM Act simply because they’ll do anything to win a few votes by making Hispanics feel like they are on “their side.” Endorsing any plan allowing illegal immigrants to be able to work legally comes with the risk of eventually having to acknowledge that throughout the economic downturn, the unemployment rate among Hispanics has consistently been higher than that of the population as a whole. Thus, more demand for limited jobs could disproportionately hurt Latinos.


Though I think Rubio’s idea could be a decent compromise, it might face limited support from Hispanic voters who resent an election-year ploy that doesn’t offer a path to full participation in our democracy to their youngest and most assimilated family members. So far, reaction has been tepid.


Back in 2010, immigrant advocacy groups touted a Congressional Budget Office report that claimed the House version of the DREAM Act would actually reduce deficits by about $2.2 billion over the 2011-2020 period through a combination of revenue increases and lower spending.


No such data about how a so-called Republican DREAM Act would impact the economy exist today. But if the Republicans want to get their base and others on board, they’d better run those numbers. If it’s true that illegal immigrant youths are the key to long-term economic growth, it’ll take some heavy lifting to convince an electorate suffering through the weakest recovery on record that any legalization program will eventually break in their favor.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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