Commentary: DREAM Act is crucified at the altar of political nonsense

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

How do you inform a young adult that their dream of a college education is collateral damage of the present insanity of American politics?

If that person is an illegal immigrant to the United States, brought as a child by his or her parents, those dreams took a blow this week after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, died in a Senate filibuster.

The legislation, which was attached to the mammoth defense reauthorization bill, would have granted certain undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency as long as they met certain criteria and were making progress toward a degree or serving in the military.

That residency status is crucial for applying for financial aid and taking advantage of in-state tuition at public colleges — the sorts of things that are necessary for most Americans to afford higher education. It's also crucial for getting legal employment after graduation. Under the DREAM Act, once these students had satisfied certain requirements (such as graduating), they’d be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Many so-called DREAM Act kids are not terribly different from the children of striving middle-class American families, but they're trapped in legal limbo because their parents hauled them to this country illegally. They grew up in the U.S., feeling every bit as "American" as any other teenager. They graduated from high school with the merits to enter college. Many embody all the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps virtues Americans love to crow about. They achieve against great odds. Most of their parents aren't educated, not even in their native lands and languages. Many would be the first in the family to enter college.

And they are willing to pay their own way — the DREAM Act isn't a handout. Many would even be willing to lay down their life for the U.S. serving in the armed forces. In short, they want to contribute to America as they get ahead. What's not to like about that?

To the rabid patriots of the tea party movement, any legislation that would address the students' plight with sympathy is "amnesty," which is to say anathema. Once upon a saner time, the DREAM Act actually enjoyed bipartisan support. But the threat of angry nativists at the polls has been enough to cause former proponents of the bill, including Sen. John McCain, to abandon it.

What a waste of budding patriotism and intelligence, crucified at the altar of political nonsense.

Sadder, for those who followed this farce closely, was that student activists were bolstered when the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took up their cause on the day of the vote, praising the DREAM Act in national interviews. Too bad that many of the senators who were needed to vote "yes" for the measure to progress to floor debate were running scared of newbie political candidates who think the entire Department of Education ought to be vaporized.

Another victim of the filibuster was the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," included in the same bill, which went down amid bickering about the number of amendments that could be introduced. DADT's fate received more press than the DREAM Act. These kids, about 65,000 of whom graduate from U.S. high schools every year, barely got a mention. Rebuffed like a toddler reaching for a cookie. Not now, dear, we've got to introduce the "Pledge to America."

Sorry, kids, government is dysfunctional right now. We've got comedians gearing up to launch rallies to "Restore Sanity" and "Keep Fear Alive." Yes, we're sending in the clowns.

Don't expect Congress to see clearly enough to let you move on to college and productive taxpayer status. Not anytime soon.

Related stories from McClatchy DC