Newcomers Strengthen Our Nation

The following originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

In recent years, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been a forceful advocate for the DREAM Act, which would give young people who were born in a foreign country but raised in the United States a chance to earn their citizenship, with all the rights and opportunities that come with it. In her new book For the Next Generation, the Florida congresswoman recounts a few of the inspiring stories she has collected from young men and women who were foreign-born but working hard to succeed in America. Their achievements deserve to be rewarded, which is why she is frustrated by Congress’ failure to pass the DREAM Act, among other features of comprehensive immigration reform.

There is an urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform—but those reforms must not convey hostility to foreigners and suspicion about their motives for coming to America. Rather, they should express confidence that as history has shown, those newcomers will strengthen our nation.

Some of those newcomers are toddlers and small children born elsewhere, then brought to the United States by their parents, who are undocumented immigrants. These children often grow up believing themselves to be American, having learned English at American schools before earning a high school diploma. Yet due to their place of birth and how they arrived here, these young people lack citizenship, which gives them virtually no chance of landing a steady job and being a productive worker in the only country they’ve known. What’s more, they face the constant threat of being deported to a country where they were born but where they may not have a single memory, relative, or friend.

Monica Lazaro is one of these students trapped in residency limbo. She was born in Honduras but moved to the United States when she was eight. In 2010, Monica’s mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and Monica was forced to grow up at a very young age, assisting her sick mother while also caring for her two younger brothers. She not only stayed in school, she thrived there, becoming the president of student government at Coral Gables Senior High. Monica also served as president of an organization called Best Buddies, which partnered young people with peers who had intellectual disabilities, and volunteered with charitable efforts to help low-income kids. She enrolled in honors and AP classes, graduating with a 4.86 GPA.

Despite these incredible triumphs, Monica’s immigration status made her ineligible for college scholarships. Thanks to a donation, she was able to attend Miami Dade Honors College, where she continued to combine sterling academics with community activism—she started a chapter of the Best Buddies organization, then earned a 4.0 GPA in college courses. Sadly, Monica’s mother recently passed away, but Monica continues to fight for her dream to make a life for herself and her brothers. She hopes to one day become a forensic pathologist.

Consider all that Monica has accomplished, all that she has lived through. Doesn’t she deserve the chance to become a full-fledged U.S. citizen?

And there are others like her. Ricardo Wagner moved here from Venezuela when he was eleven. His parents had marveled at their boy’s determination, and they wanted him to have the chance to explore his thirst for knowledge. The United States offered a chance at a more secure life. Ricardo started the sixth grade with virtually zero knowledge of English, nor of American culture. But he picked up the language so fast that he earned a release from his English as a Second Language class. He then gained access to advanced placement classes, receiving several diplomas and awards, including a letter from President George W. Bush for his excellent grades. On top of his course load, Ricardo accumulated nearly three hundred service hours by the time he graduated, ranking in the top 30 percent of his class.

He was ready to take on the world—until he was struck with terrible news: Due to his immigration status, he could not proceed with his education. The news shattered him. Ricardo had not known that he was not American by birth. He always thought the United States was his home. He grew up here. It was the land where his dreams were conceived, where he envisioned his future, and now he was being denied the opportunity to make a professional contribution to the country that he identified as home.

The DREAM Act was constructed to help young people just like Monica and Ricardo. It is the kind of sensible, pragmatic policy that could have marked a new era in immigration. A bipartisan piece of legislation coauthored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), it proposed to give undocumented young people a six-year path to citizenship following their graduation from high school. Those young people could qualify by entering college and earning a diploma, or by serving in the U.S. military for two years. Every year, there are roughly 65,000 young people who fit the profile for inclusion in the program.

For more than a decade, versions of the DREAM Act have been bandied about Congress, but it has never earned the votes it needed to be sent to the President. Republicans have held it back, claiming that its enactment would encourage immigration and that beneficiaries of the DREAM Act would take jobs that would have otherwise gone to American-born workers.

These claims are pure paranoia, with no basis in fact. In 2010, UCLA researchers examined what the impact would be if the DREAM Act gave legal residency status to the 825,000 high-achieving, foreign-born young people who were eligible for it. The analysis found that this group would generate $1.4 trillion in income over the course of the next forty years. DREAM Act beneficiaries would not only be taxpayers, they would be job creators, contributing to growth of the economy—from which everyone can benefit.

Excerpted from For The Next Generation, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz.