With cash-strapped local and state governments searching underneath sofa cushions and car seats for spare change, a new study by the Center for American Progress delivered some encouraging news this past week.
According to the study, passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — or DREAM Act — would add a total of $329 billion to the U.S. economy by 2030, and create about 1.4 million new jobs. In Virginia, that translates to $5.2 billion in positive economic activity, 20,000 new jobs and $158 million in tax revenue for Virginiaís government.
For a state thatís having trouble filling potholes on its highways and controlling tuition costs at its public universities, those numbers are tough to ignore.
Unfortunately, thatís what federal lawmakers have done for more than a decade.
Since first being introduced to the Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in 2001, the DREAM Act has been slapped down 11 straight times — either as an amendment to other legislation or as a standalone bill.
The latest wrinkle in the immigration debate came a few weeks back when the President Barack Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a DREAM-like program that would allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for the temporary right to live and work openly in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Like the controversial DREAM Act, the Deferred Action program is open to undocumented immigrants ages 15 to 31 who came to the country before they were 16, and have lived here continuously for at least five years. They also would have to be free of serious criminal convictions, be enrolled or have graduated from a U.S. high school, or have served in the U.S. military.
Given the economic challenges and the fact strategies to curb undocumented immigration have come up short for decades, U.S. lawmakers would be wise to support the Deferred Action program while revisiting the DREAM Act with a fresh set of eyes. Even if the numbers presented in the Center for American Progress study fall 15 percent to 20 percent short, adding $250 billion to the U.S. economy and lightening the load of law enforcement officers, public school officials and an overwhelmed federal court system would pay immediate dividends. Everyone in Fairfax County benefits when our law enforcement resources are focused on legitimate public safety threats, not innocent young people looking to contribute to society.
The premise of DREAM was fairly straightforward. Providing 2.1 million eager-to-be Americans a chance to pursue higher education would boost the economy in myriad ways. For starters, additional schooling opens access to higher paying jobs, allowing undocumented 20- and 30-somethings to become much more productive members of society. As things stand now, too many bright, well-intentioned immigrants are terrified of applying for a broad range of high-paying jobs for fear of being discovered and instead resort to low-wage positions from employers willing to pay them under the table.
Thatís a lot of untapped brainpower and billions of dollars in uncollected tax revenue since DREAM was first kicked to the curb 11 years ago.
The volume on the DREAM and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival debates is likely to rise in the days and weeks leading up to next monthís election.
The hope here, however, is the conversation continues well beyond Nov. 6.
Thereís a lot to consider — and a lot to be gained.