Opinion: Senate’s DREAM Act is win-win

During a firefight in 2003, near Umm Qasr, Iraq, Lance Cpl. José Luis Gutierrez became one of the first American casualties of that war. Ironically, Cpl. Gutierrez was not an American citizen when he died. He was a lawful permanent resident, born in Guatemala, who came to the United States illegally a few years before.

Cpl. Gutierrez was not alone. Hundreds of thousands of non-citizens fight in our military. And hundreds of thousands more want to serve our nation, which they love as their own. But they can’t, because their parents brought them here illegally, and, unlike Cpl. Gutierrez, they aren’t fortunate to qualify for one of the very few routes to legalization that exist. Others dream of teaching children with disabilities or becoming doctors or entrepreneurs. But their immigration status won’t allow it. As a nation, we are also missing out on their vast potential to contribute.

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Recently, I joined Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to reintroduce the DREAM Act, which would give these young people the opportunity to serve under our flag as Cpl. Gutierrez did. If these young people came to the country before age 16, have lived here at least five years, graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and serve at least two years in the armed forces, or complete two years of college, they would be eligible to become lawful residents. This would apply only to those already here.

This is not a gift. These young people would have to earn their legal status by meeting very tough criteria. I also believe children should not be punished for the misdeeds of their parents; most Americans would agree with me. 

Some ask, why reintroduce the DREAM Act when House Republicans would never pass it? Even in the Senate, Republicans solidly oppose it. Well, giving up is not in my lexicon. There are hundreds of thousands of these young people, DREAMERS, as they rightly call themselves, who burn the midnight oil over a physics textbook, or are doing their drills at their high school’s ROTC. They are not tossing their books or their uniforms in the trash because Republicans say no. These kids aren’t giving up, and neither will I.

Many do not remember the country where they were born; many do not even speak the language of their native land. They are American in all but a passport, much like Cpl. Gutierrez, who was just a kid when he crossed the border.

We also introduced the DREAM Act because the only way to move forward is by having a proposal on the table. If my Republican colleagues have suggestions or concerns, Sen. Durbin and I have an open door. If they sympathize with the plight of these children and want to help, let’s talk, let’s improve the bill and work in a bipartisan fashion. Remember, this bill was originally co-authored by a man with solid conservative credentials, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

He saw the DREAM Act as sound policy. The Pentagon supports it because it would help meet recruitment objectives. Economically, DREAM Act students would contribute about $3.6 trillion to the U.S. economy over their working lives. There are other benefits: stable communities, role models, job creators. Economists who have looked at immigration know it is not a zero-sum game, as opponents inaccurately say, but a growth engine. Further, these young people are already here. Sending them back would actually cost us money, and we would lose talents that could be perfected to our nation’s benefit.

Republicans know all this. So I ask my colleagues who have voted for this bill in the past to show courage; to shake off their fear of the Tea Party and the extreme right. I ask courage from those Republican senators who represent states with large immigrant populations such as Nevada, Florida, Arizona and Texas. Last time we voted on this bill, 90 percent of Democrats supported it and only three brave Republicans out of 42 joined us. I don’t expect 100 percent Republican support, but how about 30 or 40 percent of their caucus? 

These young people are not afraid, and they are not giving up; neither should we. That is what our nation expects of us.

Reid is majority leader of the U.S. Senate.