The Obama Administration’s executive action has been met with praise and criticism but while the timing might be suspect, certainly the effect of the action will positively change the lives of hundreds of thousands of promising young people. Introducing the DREAM Act in 2001, co-sponsor Senator Orrin Hatch declared that it “will help make the American dream a reality for many young people... [who] view themselves as Americans, and are loyal to our country… They grow up to become honest and hardworking adolescents and young adults, and strive for academic as well as professional excellence… In short, though these children have built their lives here, they have no possibility of achieving and living the American dream. What a tremendous loss to our society.” Sadly, Congress failed to pass the Act, and has continued to fail to address illegal immigration since that date.
I was one of very few elected Republican leaders to applaud this move and am convinced that what we did in Utah in 2011 regarding comprehensive, pragmatic and compassionate reform played a key role in the decision of the federal government to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in deferring deportation action on DREAMers. More on that later.
In a January 2012 report on state DREAM Act type legislation, the NCSL stated that undocumented students “tend to be hard-working and goal-oriented, with high academic standing.” The “bottom line” they continued, “is that our economic future depends on educating these young people. These young immigrants are key to our ability to counteract the serious demographic challenges we face… Each person who attends college and obtains a professional job means one less drain on the social service (and possibly criminal justice) budgets of the state and an asset in terms of payment of taxes and the attraction to the state of high-wage employers seeking well-educated workers.”
UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center reported on a study of the income that would be earned by undocumented students who would be potentially eligible for the proposed DREAM Act benefits and concluded that those beneficiaries would earn (and of course pay taxes on and spend within the US) $1.4 trillion to $3.6 trillion over 40 years.
One would think that Senator Hatch’s 2001 appeal to the American Dream would be sufficient motivation for Congress to act, but extreme partisan politics has replaced constructive compromise in Washington. During this time of economic downturn, the federal government should consider the positive economic benefits of giving undocumented students the opportunity to pursue their dreams of youthful hope.
One of my responsibilities as attorney general after the Utah Compact and subsequent 2011 legislature's pragmatic approach to state immigration reform was to negotiate with the Feds to try and get approval for our Utah Guest Worker Program. We urged them to exercise “prosecutorial discretion,” and make enforcement decisions based on the best use of limited resources.
I spent hours trying to convince officials to defer action and not deport a group of Utah workers who haven’t committed crimes, and will come out of the darkness to continue working and pay taxes. They were intrigued by our proposal as well as the fact that the “reddest of red states” had taken a rational and fair approach, and was one of the few states that had long given educational hope to the Utah taught children of unauthorized immigrants by offering in-state tuition.
In a surprise move the administration announced earlier this year it would exercise prosecutorial discretion and focus deportations on criminal aliens; and in a similar move in June declared it would defer action on deporting approximately 1 million undocumented young people and allow them to put their US educations and upbringing to work.
President Obama said that the new policy “lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to … patriotic young people.” Mitt Romney declared, "If I'm president, we'll do our very best to have that kind of long-term solution that provides certainty and clarity for the people that come into this country through no fault of their own by virtue of the action of their parents."
There is hope that regardless of the outcome of the 2012 election, there will be renewed emphasis on providing educational opportunities and employment possibilities to an army of committed American children who want to give back to the only country they know.
-Mark L. Shurtleff was elected in 2000 and is the first three-term attorney general in Utah history.