The demise of the DREAM act

The DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) died on December 18, 2010, when it drew only 55 affirmative votes in the lame duck U.S. Senate, five short of the 60 votes required to invoke cloture to cut-off a filibuster by opponents. The legislation, designed to provide a pathway to citizenship to illegal aliens who came to the U.S. as children, has no chance of passage in either house of the current Congress because of opposition from both political parties but mainly from Republicans whose numbers in Congress increased this year as a result of the 2010 Congressional election.

The demise of the DREAM Act needs to be understood in the context of the larger debate over U.S. immigration law and policy.

What is the purpose of U.S. immigration law? The primary purpose I believe is to limit the growth of the U.S. population by limiting the number of immigrants.

The 2010 census reports the U.S. population at nearly 309 million, an increase of 28 million from the 281 million reported in the 2000 census. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050 the U.S. population will reach 438 million, an increase of 129 million over the 2010 figure, and that more than 80% of future population growth will be attributable to immigration, with less than 20% attributable to natural increase in whatever baseline population is the starting point. As much as one-third of current immigration to the U.S. has been and continues to be illegal.

Population growth at that rate will doom President Obama’s stated goal of reducing oil imports by one-third in 10 years. Instead, oil imports will have to increase to meet the demands of a growing population. A growing population requires us to drill more deep-water oil wells on the ocean floor, burn more coal to generate electricity, and also put more nuclear power plants near where we live.

U.S. immigration law puts a numerical limit on how many immigrants are allowed to enter the U.S. each year. The alternative to enforcing a numerical limitation would be to have no numerical limitation, and allowing everyone in the world who would like to immigrate to the U.S. in search of a better life to do so.

We could have an interesting philosophical debate over whether or not to open our borders to all comers without limit. But no one can doubt that the majority of Americans support enforcing a numerical limit on immigration to the U.S.

Enforcing a numerical limitation requires us to turn away millions of would-be immigrants, not because they’re bad people, but simply because their admission would exceed our limit. And if those people come anyway in violation of our immigration limit, they have to be deported to give our numerical limit meaning.

Enforcing the numerical limit of U.S. immigration law is difficult and expensive. No amount of enforcement measured in dollars or personnel by itself is sufficient to halt illegal immigration in violation of legal limits. To deter illegal immigrants from attempting illegal entry, we also have to alter the cost-benefit analysis illegal immigrants use in deciding to attempt illegal entry. We have to raise the costs and lower the benefits of attempting illegal entry.

That’s the concept behind employer sanctions, penalizing employers who unlawfully hire illegal aliens. If there are no jobs or other benefits for aliens who succeed in entering illegally, fewer will decide to come in the first place, and more will decide to leave voluntarily after they arrive.

The DREAM Act would have done just the opposite, lowered the cost and increased the benefit of violating U.S. immigration law. If the beneficiaries acquire U.S. citizenship and attain the age of 21, they can reward the parents who brought them here illegally by sponsoring the parents as “immediate relatives” for permanent residence and a pathway to U.S. citizenship. It would incentivize bringing children illegally into the U.S. in the expectation of receiving permanent residence once they graduate from high school, which they can attend for free despite their illegal status.

The DREAM Act is also widely recognized to be the leading edge of a piecemeal effort in lieu of so-called comprehensive immigration reform which would have legalized all the illegal aliens in the U.S. had it not been defeated in Congress in 2006 and again in 2007.

Such efforts to lower the costs and increase the benefits of illegal immigration would ensure that increasing numbers of aliens choose to violate U.S. immigration law. Is that what we want? If it is, shouldn’t we just abolish the numerical limit on immigration and let everyone in?

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