By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute
It is of better valor to stay outside of the political arguments, and I most often heed that advice. But events of last week are forcing me to reconsider said advice.
Last week, the DREAM Act was voted down in the Senate on a party-line vote. The DREAM Act allows students who are, by birth, illegal immigrants to gain access to in-state tuition and financial aid for college. As well, it allows them to fast-track for citizenship. The Act was written to rectify a problem for students who generally have lived in the US since shortly after birth, but do not hold the basic rights that citizens have. Let me give you a visual. A child who is brought into the US shortly after she is born. She is raised in the US and attends US public schools (because there are protections at the K-12 levels). She is an excellent student, takes AP classes and has a GPA of 4.0. Although she is Mexican, legally, she has never spoken Spanish and sounds just like most other American kids.
But she can’t go to a public college or university because she is forced to pay the full-rate of tuition and fees, which are typically 2 to 2.5 times that of in-state rates. She can’t get financial aid because current rules say that only citizens or I-9 status students may obtain federal and state financial aid.
She didn’t choose her parents. She didn’t choose her situation. She is an asset to this country and will be, in all probability, a law-abiding, tax-paying member of society. At some point soon, she would become a legal citizen of this country, if they allow a pathway to citizenship for her. She has never known another country. She waves the flag when the Olympics are on.
But she’s not going to college because she isn’t “American.”
The DREAM Act has been around for about 10 years and has never passed. In the Senate, it has had as many as 12 Republican sponsors in the past. But in this election year, not one Republican voted for it. Not one. In 2007 at EPI’s National Capitol Summit on Latino Students and Educational Opportunity, Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (FL) talked to us about the DREAM Act and how it was imperative to pass in order to allow these youth to participate equally in our society. He spoke of his constituents in the Miami area who are bright and hard working, and that not allowing them to participate in our postsecondary system is simply a waste of resources.
But Diaz-Balart’s party continues to vote the DREAM Act down. This is sad in so many ways. First, and most obvious, is that it forces students who could contribute far more to our society into a quagmire, forced to either take on incredible debt to pursue their postsecondary and career goals, or move back to their homeland (the one that they have never really lived in) to study. Sounds a lot like brain drain.
But second, it’s sad because we have come to a point where Congress is completely paralyzed. In the two years since Obama was elected President, almost all important votes have been party-line votes. We saw this in reverse during Bush’s two terms, but not to this level. It is unhealthy for a democracy to be so bifurcated. At least a parliamentary system can vote a majority, but it seems we cannot. Even though the Democrats hold both houses and the White House, they are that one vote short of 60 to be filibuster-proof, and that is the problem. A simple majority doesn’t cut it anymore. You need a super majority of 60+ votes to pursue an agenda. For better or worse, President Obama spent his political capital on Health Care legislation and stimulus bills, which, in turn, aided his education platform.
It is always true that, in an election year, not much ever happens in Congress. But choosing to not pass the DREAM Act seems cruel. Even Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME), who only vote with their party two-thirds of the time, voted against the DREAM Act, even though they have voted for it before. In 2007, 12 Republicans voted for the DREAM Act, and 7 of those are still in Congress. Each one of them voted against it this time and allowed filibuster, effectively killing the Act.
Even if those Republicans had “good” reasons to vote against it (although I can’t think of one!), at some point when does an elected member of Congress make a decision for the right reason as opposed to politics as usual. The truth is, we need both sides crossing over. On education. On health care. On social security. On everything. It is unhealthy to vote with your party all of the time, but the political pressure is there to do just that. When Nancy Pelosi became the speaker in 2007, it was common knowledge that every House Democrat was to vote with the party. Those that didn’t would be punished. And we have heard the same type of story about the Republicans in previous Congresses.
At some point, it has to stop. Now would be good.
It seems hypocritical to talk about the importance of a college education when we refuse to allow those who have worked diligently their entire lives to take part in that dream. Let’s pass the DREAM Act and give OUR youth a fighting chance in the global economy.