The PJ Tatler

How to make the DREAM Act come true

In reporting for Our School, my book on a college-prep charter school in San Jose, I met many kids who’d come from Mexico as young children without papers. They were working hard to qualify for college, but couldn’t work legally once they earned a degree. (The illegal students, who didn’t qualify for state or federal aid, were more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years than their classmates who were citizens. They couldn’t afford to go slow.)

Some of the female college graduates took under-the-table jobs as nannies; one male graduate was working as a waiter.  Some are on long waiting lists; other have achieved legal status through marriage.

The DREAM Act promised a path to legalization for young immigrants who’d graduated from U.S. high schools and completed two years of college or military service. I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t pass. When unemployment is high, illegal immigrants are very unpopular.

I think there’s a way to revive the Dream Act in 2011: Link citizenship only to military service, which Americans see as a sacrifice, dropping the link to college attendance, which most see as a subsidized benefit to the individual.

Two years of college enrollment, with no degree required, doesn’t guarantee a productive citizen. Anyone can enroll in community college, if only to take remedial classes. (Only 22 percent of full-time students earn a two-year degree in three years.)  It’s much harder to qualify for the military.

As veterans, the newly legalized could use their GI benefits to pursue a college degree. I think most Americans would be happy to welcome them to citizenship.