Dream On: Immigration Reform Activism At Princeton

By Toni Alimi ’13

In December 2010, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was passed in the House of Representatives but lost a cloture vote by 55-41 in the Senate (a 60 vote supermajority was required). This act would grant temporary residency to illegal immigrants who had been brought to the United States as minors on the conditions that they were “of good moral character” and that they completed either two years of military service or two years of education at a four-year college. If, within the period of temporary residency, a person were to receive a bachelor’s degree or higher, or serve in the military for two years, he or she would be granted permanent residency as well.

Immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is an extremely contentious issue in the American political arena today. Though it, as most issues do, currently takes a back seat to the state of the economy in relative import to most voters, 52% of Americans consider it to be a very important issue according to an October 2011 Rasmussen poll. Over the DREAM Act, division is rife: a 2010 Gallup poll found that 54% of Americans would vote for the DREAM Act, and 42% would oppose it.

There is a tendency among conservatives, on a national scale, towards skepticism of bills concerned with immigration reform. Particularly within the Republican Party, as was seen in the debate over the DREAM Act in 2010, politicians argue that such bills tend to reward illegal immigration, and as such, will simply incentivize people to break the law and come to America illegally. However, this line of reasoning is not the sole one within conservative blocs. Prominent figures in the party, such as former President George W. Bush, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, have advocated for immigration reform in ways that have often caused disagreement within the Republican Party. In June of 2007, then-President Bush advocated for a bill which would have tightened border security but also created a path to citizenship for approximately 12 million immigrants and created a temporary worker program to accommodate the dual needs of foreign workers and local businesses. This bill was struck down in the Senate as well, with 33 Democrats, 12 Republicans, and one independent voting for its advancement, and 15 Democrats, 37 Republicans, and one independent voting to strike it down.

Newt Gingrich, one of the current front-runners for the Republican Party presidential nomination, has also faced heat within his own party for his perceived softness on immigration policy. Gingrich advocates granting illegal immigrants who have been in America for a long period of time legal status, although his plan would not grant these people U.S. citizenship. This plan would certainly answer the deportation question, but opposing candidate and front-runner Mitt Romney suggests Gingrich’s idea “encourages another wave of illegal immigration.”

Presidential candidate Rick Perry has also come under fire for his program in his home state of Texas, which allows Texas residents who were brought to America illegally as children to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. At CPAC, Mr. Romney challenged this program: “My friend Governor Perry said if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals, that you don’t have a heart. I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.” Of course, Texas’ program does not actually endorse or oppose illegal immigration, it deals only very specifically with those immigrants who were brought to America illegally without their volition. Nevertheless, the tone of Romney’s remarks is clear, and reflects a substantial sentiment in the United States population today. According to a December Fox News Poll, one-third of Americans “[opposed] increasing the number of LEGAL immigrants allowed to come to the United States,” even if “they [agreed] to work, pay taxes and obey the law” and 19% would support the government sending all illegal immigrants back to their home country.

On Princeton’s campus, the fifteen core students who comprise Princeton’s DREAM Team meet weekly to advance the causes proposed in the DREAM Act. Speaking on behalf of DREAM Team, Princeton freshman Yessica Martinez describes the goals of the organization as “to raise awareness on campus about the issues that affect undocumented youth.” Though it is often true (lamentably so!) that Princeton students display apathy towards expressly political causes, Martinez states that DREAM Team has been able to work against this apathy and garner a lot of support, beginning simply by providing information to the student population. “It was shocking to find that a large percentage of them did not know about the DREAM Act, but it has also been rewarding to have them voice their support once they learn about it. While we have noticed a sense of apathy from some students, this has been mostly overshadowed by the support we’ve gathered from many others.”

In addition, despite the common and reasonable association of immigration policy issues with people of Hispanic origins, DREAM Team enjoys a wide range of support from students of a variety of backgrounds. “In fact,” Martinez continues, “some of the strongest leaders in our group are not of Hispanic descent and have no immediate connection to the issue of illegal immigration. I think the reason why we get such a diverse group of people joining our meetings is because many of them, though not directly affected by the issue, have known undocumented students who would benefit from the DREAM Act.”

In fact, one of the goals of Princeton DREAM Team is quite similar to the plan proposed in Texas. Their campaign, Education Not Deportation (E.N.D) “seeks to advocate on behalf of DREAM Act eligible students in deportation proceedings to ensure that they are freed from detention centers and allowed to remain in the U.S… as well as [create] a scholarship fund that can help make education financially accessible.” And although DREAM Team’s leaders are aware of the typical conservative reaction towards bills like DREAM, the organization is hopeful of involvement from the conservative community. Citing “a common tendency among conservatives to confuse the issue of the DREAM Act with the broader immigration debate,” Martinez is confident that in receiving more information, conservatives will in turn become more receptive towards the passage of the DREAM Act: “The DREAM Act is an extremely narrow bill that would only affect a small segment of the immigrant population and I think once this distinction is made it becomes easier to engage with conservatives.”

Philosophical and political arguments aside, what is clear is that the manner in which immigration is debated today seems to be detrimental to the Republican Party’s goals. Hispanic Americans currently comprise 16.3% of the American population, and are the fastest growing demographic in the country today. As such, to win votes, Republicans cannot afford to be perceived as the anti-Hispanic, or anti-immigration party. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising star in the GOP and a child of immigrants from Cuba, has urged Republicans to change the tone of the national debate saying, “You’re talking about somebody’s mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters.”

One more thing is certain: if the political trends which occurred in the midterm elections in 2010, where the balance of power in the Senate and the House of Representatives shifted heavily back towards the Republican party, continue, a revived version of the DREAM Act will require significant Republican support in order to be passed. And at Princeton, DREAM Team will certainly be fighting for the Act’s reintroduction and passage. Says Martinez, “We are hopeful that the DREAM Act will be reintroduced in Congress and thus believe that organizing on college campuses and in the community at large is a means of preparing for when the bill is brought to the Senate floor.”

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