Republicans last week voted to kill debate on the DREAM act, tabling the legislation for this year. In the press, of course, they were veritably accused of deporting Harvard freshmen and sending would-be combat troops underground to eventually sell heroin to inner city youth. President Obama was quoted as saying he was disappointed that “common sense did not prevail,” as if our existing laws and immigration regulations are a set of random, impossible to conquer obstacles that make citizenship all but unattainable for a lucky few with, you know, a dream.
I know a little something about the American dream. I was born in the Soviet Union, into a young family persecuted because of our religion. My brother was a math prodigy with no hope of receiving an education worthy of his talent. My father was a mechanical engineer consistently held back in his career. I had just been born when my family decided to emigrate.
My father was demoted and stripped of his degree; our friends and family stopped speaking to us. When we were finally allowed to leave, we were sent to Italy, a waiting ground for refugees, with no money and almost no belongings. For a year my father applied to Western countries for permission to immigrate while my mother and brother supported us with odd jobs. After a year, we were granted refugee status to go to Canada. Eventually, my dad landed work in Detroit, Michigan, and commuted an hour each way over the border for three years while we all waited for green cards. It took years for us to be eligible for American citizenship, and even then we had to file all the appropriate paperwork, go in for individual interviews, take the citizenship test and denounce all allegiances. Only then were we finally sworn in as American citizens.
The path to citizenship was a long and agonizing process, full of paperwork and waiting, government bureaucracy and hoops to jump through, but we got it done. What the proponents of the DREAM Act fail to account for is that none of the process is intended to inconvenience anybody. The obstacles to immigration are put into place for good reason and are completely surmountable.
Almost no one is arguing that we open wide our borders to anybody and everybody. Ideally, legal immigrants are allowed into this country based on certain objective factors — valuable job skills, dangers they face in their country of origin, their familial relation to U.S. citizens, and to increase diversity. The DREAM Act, and other “paths to asylum,” essentially nullify these guidelines and say, “Hey, if you don’t fall into these categories or can’t follow the rules, go ahead and try anyway — climb under a fence if you can. We’ll probably just let you stay if you manage to evade us long enough.”
The DREAM Act’s requirements for its beneficiaries are fairly skeletal. They include being of “good moral character” (which the government has historically been aces at determining), living here illegally long enough to graduate from high school or get a GED, and agreeing to serve in the military — because nothing strengthens a country’s armed forces more than forcing foreign nationals to serve in foxholes.
The vote was watched in the Senate gallery by activists wearing graduation caps, many of whom had spent months or years advocating for passage of the DREAM Act. Perhaps that time would have been better spent actually applying for legal citizenship. Any person who graduates from an American public high school should have learned certain fundamentals — playground etiquette, how to spell their own name, rudimentary arithmetic and whether they themselves reside in this country legally. They should also have learned in a civics class at some point that where there is crime there is consequence, and that the path to citizenship is to legally comply with the law, not change the law itself.
My family jumped the hurdles, not the line, and it paid off. My father and brother both became college professors. My mother became an entrepreneur. We fulfilled our American dream with hard work and by systematically and legally working within the system. There is no reason everybody else shouldn’t.
Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C.