Sunday, December 12, 2010

Opponents of the DREAM Act: Evil or Stupid?

As I've discussed before, I'm a big fan of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for certain unauthorized aliens who were brought into the country as minors and intend to go to college or join the military.

I'm also a big fan of the principle of reciprocity:
[I]n the context of opinions and debate, the principle of reciprocity states that we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree, and to treat them with civility, even if we judge their opinions to be unreasonable and/or their views to be unjust or immoral.

If you assume the worst of someone only because of an opinion different than yours, then you’re being an intellectually dishonest asshole.
So, while I disagree with the (mostly conservative) opposition to the DREAM Act, I'd like to believe opponents are motivated by a sincere evaluation of the bill's merits, which isn't entirely implausible. The DREAM Act's benefits are clear, but—in a departure from the impeccable legislation we've come to expect from the legislative branch—it also has its share of problems.[1] Any member of Congress who votes against it, then, should have little trouble explaining why the bill is flawed, and why he or she feels the negatives outweigh the positives. Let's start with Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX):
I am sympathetic to the young, illegal immigrant children who were brought here by their parents. Because their parents disregarded America's immigration laws, they are in a difficult position. However, this bill actually rewards the very illegal immigrant parents who knowingly violated our laws. Once the DREAM Act's amnesty recipients become citizens and turn 21, if they haven't already they can sponsor their illegal immigrant parents, spouse, or children for legalization, who can then sponsor others, resulting in chain migration that will further hurt American workers and American taxpayers.
I hear this one a lot, and it's nonsense. To say that DREAM Act beneficiaries will be able to "sponsor their illegal immigrant parents" is an inherent contradiction. They will, of course, be able to sponsor their legal immigrant parents, via the legal process of which conservatives are so fond (with its 15- to 18-year waiting lists for most Mexican applicants). But if the parents are already here illegally, nothing can be done for them until they leave. On top of that, if they leave after having been here illegally for a year or more, there's a ten-year prohibition on even applying for a visa. By the time those hurdles have been cleared, I'd say it's a little unfair—that is, even more unfair than usual—to call the parents "illegal."

Lamar Smith's apparent belief that family-sponsored visas are a low-hassle way for unauthorized aliens to obtain legal status is, I think it's safe to say, incompatible with reality. That raises the question, is he trying to be misleading on purpose, or does he simply not know the basics of U.S. immigration policy? I don't have an answer to that, but, in Smith's defense, a lot can be forgotten in 14 years, which is how long it's been since he wrote the damn law.[2]

Moving on, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):
The DREAM Act specifically focuses on promising young foreigners a bright future if their parents choose to break the law. This will unquestionably encourage desperate parents to bring their children, perhaps millions of them, across our borders illegally.
Also a popular criticism, and not quite as non-sensical, but definitely misleading. Presumably, Rohrabacher's point is that in the future aliens will cross the border in the hope that similar legislation will be passed while they're here (because it's going so smoothly this time around!). In other words, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he's being more vague than dumb, because the DREAM Act unambiguously excludes anyone who wasn't already in the country at least five years before its enactment. Desparate as those future parents may be to get their kids across the border, they're going to have a tough time doing it in 2005 or earlier (and if they can pull that off, we should probably just let them stay).

Again, Rohrabacher surely knows about the five-year provision, but I bet a lot of casual observers—especially those inclined to take his side on this—do not, and I'm just cynical enough to wonder if maybe his vagueness is intentional—calculated to make the Act sound much scarier than it really is. Regardless, it's a counter-productive omission. Instead of making me think about the dangerous-precedent argument (which, presented appropriately, could be somewhat compelling—not that there isn't a counter-argument), it makes me wonder why Rohrabacher doesn't appear to know what he's talking about.

Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA):
According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 2 million immigrants will be eligible for amnesty under this bill. That number is not too difficult to imagine given that H.R. 5281 would allow these individuals, once they are naturalized and become 21 years of age, to exploit our broken system by sponsoring their immediate relatives with no numerical cap. We call that chain migration. In fact, they could each bring in something like 179 other individuals.
Really? A newly-legalized alien could bring in 179 relatives? That's such an oddly-specific number. Do you have 179 parents, spouses, children, and siblings, Phil Gingrey? Because I have four.

Surprisingly, that's not the most ridiculous part of Gingrey's speech (well, it might turn out to be, if I ever figure out where that number came from). Even worse is that he sees sponsorship of immediate relatives as "exploit[ing] our broken system." Because that's what's wrong with the system—all those nefarious foreigners applying for visas with 15- to 18-year back-ups and patiently waiting for the paperwork to go through.

Representative Timothy Johnson (R-IL):
It is an affront and a sobering reality to the American taxpayers and their children and grandchildren who are going to pay this bill to the tune of billions of dollars over the future. It is also a reality to the 10 percent of Americans who are unemployed who realize that the effect on the infrastructure of America in this bill is going to be absolutely negative with respect to Social Security benefits, jobs, loans, health care, education and otherwise.
I don't have the energy to try to sort out the competing financial guesswork coming from both sides; I just want to point out that Republican Representative Timothy Johnson is one of many conservatives arguing that if we allow roughly one million unauthorized aliens to legally work (which leads to paying taxes), and legally get a college education (which theoretically leads to paying even more taxes, and sometimes to creating new jobs), it would cause billions of dollars of damage to the economy. If that's true, then our economy is fundamentally backward (which it very well may be, for all I know), and we might as well just give up.

Still, maybe I'm being unfair. (See? Always trying to avoid assuming the worst!) Maybe this is just a bunch of meaningless grandstanding for the C-SPAN cameras, which is about as meaningless as grandstanding gets. At least these elected officials aren't actively spreading misinformation for the clear purpose of riling up the public, right?

Here's Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), actively spreading misinformation for the clear purpose of riling up the public:
If the alien is unable to complete 2 years of college but can demonstrate that their removal would result in hardship to themselves or their U.S. citizen or LPR spouse, child, or parent (the ones who brought them here illegally), the education requirement can be waived altogether. The bill actually allows illegal aliens to get legal status indefinitely without any college or military service.
When he says "hardship," he's abbreviating a bit. The actual standard is "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship," a phrase—Senator Sessions may be surprised to learn—that was not chosen simply because some legislative aide likes the way it sounds. Under current law, one of very few ways an unauthorized alien can obtain legal status is by showing that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to a spouse, parent, or child—provided that person is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (among other requirements). As the language implies, this exceptionally high standard is met only in extremely unusual circumstances. Sessions is upset about a provision that's essentially the same—in that it carries the same high standard—but would also allow DREAM Act-eligible aliens to attempt to show that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to themselves. Hardly a sweeping reform.

The shot Sessions takes at the parents "who brought them here illegally" is another one for the Evil-or-Stupid file. Granted, the proposed law is poorly written, so he may just be confused, but the existing hardship waiver is poorly written in almost exactly the same way.[3] Assuming the two are meant to be similarly interpreted, the status of the parents is irrelevant to the DREAM Act debate. If they aren't U.S. citizens or legal residents, they can't be the basis for a hardship waiver under either law. If they've somehow obtained legal status, they can already be the basis for a hardship waiver, regardless of whether the DREAM Act passes.

That's just a small part of the latest version of Sessions' "Ten Things You Need to Know About the DREAM Act." The memos—packed with false and misleading claims—have been picked up by countless conservative news sites (Michelle Malkin, in particular, has been all over them), and appear to have provided the souce material for the speeches made by Sessions' colleagues in the House. Naturally, those already inclined to oppose the Act haven't bothered to question the memos' content (or, even worse, if they have they've been quiet about it).

I'm sure it's clear that I think it's wrong to oppose the DREAM Act, but I hope I've also made it clear that I don't think it's insane to oppose it. Why, then, are conservatives so unwilling to fight it on its merits? In the name of reciprocity, I want to believe they think they are fighting it on its merits—they just have two or three (dozen) facts wrong.[4] But everything I've seen and heard points, rather overwhelmingly, toward another explanation:

Conservative ideologues love to get worked up about immigration because it's an issue that (a) people know little about, (b) tends to arouse strong emotions, and (c) can be relatively plausibly blamed for any number of unrelated problems.[5] They know they'll be called out when they go too far, but only by the likes of Media Matters and the American Immigration Council—nobody their followers would actually listen to—so they can pretty much say whatever they want. They make the DREAM Act sound as sinister as possible and in the process portray themselves as patriotic freedom-fighters, protecting America from the terrible menace of foreign-born high-achievers.

Their obvious lack of respect for potential DREAM Act beneficiaries is nothing short of appalling, and their obvious indifference toward honest debate and accurately informing the people they represent is almost as bad—and this just happens to be an issue I know a few things about. Reciprocity be damned—when I hear the same blowhards talking about something less familiar, why should I trust anything they say?

1. An incomplete list:
— Fraud (also an acceptable argument against…anything, really).
— Dangerous precedent.
— Economic impact (projections are all over the map).
— Insufficient time for debate/amendments.
    I'm not saying I agree or disagree with any of those (or that, even if valid, they outweigh the positives of the bill), just that they aren't total nonsense.
2. From the biography on Lamar Smith's website:
He introduced and successfully advanced the passage of a 1996 immigration reform bill. This legislation was the most far-reaching reform of America’s immigration laws since the 1960s.
Prominently displayed on the main page of the same website, as of this article's writing, is the video of Smith's misinformation-fueled speech on the House floor. His audacity would be impressive if it wasn't so infuriating.
3. Immigration and Nationality Act, §240A(b):
(1) The Attorney General may cancel removal in the case of an alien who is inadmissible or deportable from the United States if the alien—

(D) establishes that removal would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to the alien’s spouse, parent, or child, who is a citizen of the United States or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence.
Sort of looks like the citizen/LPR requirement only applies to children, and not spouses or parents, doesn't it? It could go either way, I suppose, but the settled interpretation is that, to qualify as the basis for a hardship waiver, a spouse or parent must have legal status too. Any chance Sessions has been politely set straight by the ambiguous clause's author, Representative Lamar Smith? Yeah, I doubt it.
4. Another possibility, as always, is that I have it wrong. After all, immigration is complicated, and I certainly don't claim to be an expert, so I'll concede that I may have made a mistake or two. And while I generally endorse the Media Matters and AIC articles I referred to above, I remain wary of anything coming from such a one-sided source (whatever that side may be).
    But for the anti-DREAM Act arguments quoted here—and many, many others I left out—to make sense, there are a lot of things I'd have to be wrong about.
5. Obviously, that goes both ways. Replace "conservative ideologues" with "liberal ideologues" and "immigration" with "tax cuts for the rich," for example.


  1. Exactly how do conservatives drive away an admitted liberal leaner? Sounds to me like you were already where you wanted to be before conservatives drove you anywhere.

    And we should believe you, a nobody, about what is in a piece of legislation over a Senator who has actually read it?

    And I didn't see where you addressed one of Session's most critical points - while this is supposed to help those poor, innocent children (up to 29 years old) who did nothing wrong when their parents brought them here, they can then apply to have those parents who brought then here illegally get on the path to citizenship, and import a whole bunch more of their relatives as well. Must have slipped your mind, huh? What a coincidence.

    Typical dishonest leftism. Compassion my foot. You can't stop drooling over the tens of millions of Undocumented Future Democratic Voters of America that this bill would give you. You know it's the Collective's last gasp to retain any kind of relevancy or power, now that Obama has finally woken this sleeping giant - the center-right nation that spoke on Nov 2.

    I hope all that easily offends you.

  2. Haha, you almost had me there! I didn't recognize the satire at first, but this comment so thoroughly violates the principle of reciprocity, there's no way it's meant to be taken seriously.

    Let's see…there's the assumption that I haven't read the bill, when I obviously have. That's how I knew, for example, the precise wording of the "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" standard.

    And then there's the assumption that I left out a key point because it hurts my case, when I mentioned multiple times that I don't deny the DREAM Act has its flaws. My goal with this article was not to be comprehensive, because I don't have time to write an 80-page analysis that nobody would read, but to show that (at least some) Republicans in Congress are making dishonest arguments. Sure, they've made some valid arguments as well, but does that excuse the dishonesty?

    I also like that the point you chose to accuse me of omitting wasn't omitted at all—there are two paragraphs on it right at the top!—and that this was immediately after accusing me of opining on something I haven't read. Very clever.

    Finally, you sarcastically undermine reciprocity from a broader perspective by assuming the Democrats only care about securing more Democratic voters. (Immigrants are disinclined to vote Republican? Really? I can't imagine why.)

    Incidentally, you seem to think I'm a Democrat, which I find offensive. But, aside from that, a very enjoyable comment. Thanks!

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