Recently, I participated in an email discussion with several conservatives about the merits of the Dream Act. The conversation had a narrow focus involving the fiscal ramifications of passing the bill. When the discussion ended, I was left with the impression that the argument - based on fiscal responsibility - was more of a protective mechanism than a concern about our country's fiscal imbalance.
A report by the Center of Immigration Studies stated that the Dream Act will cost taxpayers an estimated $6.1 billion per year in tuition subsidies. That's rather costly. Yet I also noticed a report from the Tax Foundation estimating that the Bush tax cuts would stop $2.1 trillion from going into the federal tax coffers over a ten year period. The cost, according to static scoring models, is approximately thirty-three times the size of the Dream Act.
Conservatives would vigorously argue, and rightfully so, that the Bush tax cuts would incentivize savings and encourage investments. Small businesses would have more available capital to expand and create more jobs. The Bush tax cuts, they would argue, is a financial investment that will reap benefits down the road.
But I would argue that the Dream Act, like most tax cuts, would pay dividends down the road as well. During the email exchange, some didn't appreciate when I compared the Dream Act to the Bush tax cuts. But economists are much more comfortable predicting strong returns on investments in education than they are on returns from supply-side economics. This is not a criticism of the Bush tax cuts, but an observation that while tax cuts admittedly spur economic growth by promoting free market activity, they don't offer the same level of return as investments in education. An example should suffice.
The U.S. Census Bureau showed that workers with a high-school diploma earn an average of $27,000 per year while those with a B.A. from college earn an average of $51,000 a year. By correlation, attaining a college degree nearly doubles your annual income. Correspondingly, bigger incomes translate into more tax revenue for state and federal governments. A study by the UCLA says that recipients of the Dream Act would generate $1.5 to $3.5 trillion in income over a 40 year period.
Walter McMahon, an expert on the economics of education, said that every dollar spent on education is re-spent by recipients in the free market. It increases local demand for goods like computers and cars while allowing small businesses to hire more workers. McMahon estimates that investments in education pay for itself 6.7 times over in just 45 years. Even the Bush tax cuts, by rosy supply-side estimations, don't generate that sort of return. If the GOP needs a reason to oppose the Dream Act, they should shy away from fiscal calculations.
A friend we affectionately call "Old Nick" reminds us that the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing. It's an adage that effectively refocuses the mind when you're caught up in secondary issues. We can argue about fiscal responsibility; but by doing so, we trade the ancillary points for something more important.
The Dream Act is not just about economic investments, but about those in America stuck in limbo because their parents brought them here illegally as minors. It's counter-intuitive to punish people for a crime they didn't commit. They are no more guilty for breaking our immigration laws than the passenger in a speeding car is guilty for breaking traffic laws. Our legal system does not punish passengers with speeding tickets, so why does our legal system penalize passengers brought to our country as children?
Instead of making things more difficult for those who have defied the odds, graduated from high-school, and qualified for college, we should encourage their productivity with citizenship. Let them serve in our military to get a better understanding of what it's like to fight for freedom. Let them go to college to get a better understanding of the importance of competition and the vitality of the free market. Let them live the American dream. After all, we are a nation founded on immigrants, are we not?
Michael Gerson wrote an interesting article for the San Francisco Chronicle about how the Democrat response to the School Choice program more than a decade ago resembles the current situation the GOP is in with the Dream Act.
Gerson said that Democrats had a hard time supporting the School Choice program because they were beholden to the Teachers' Union that largely opposed it. So Republicans kept narrowing the eligibility standards for school vouchers until the only applicants left were poor children that attended failing school districts. It was a move that dared Democrats to vote against the constituency they claimed to represent the most. Gerson called the situation "clarifying" because it showed that Democrats chose ideology and the Teachers' Union over the neediest children.
Now, Republicans are in a similar situation with the Dream Act. Republicans viscerally oppose illegal immigration. Some of them wouldn't flinch over deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants over night. However, the Dream Act doesn't apply to all undocumented immigrants. The bill reaches out only those brought to the United States as children, those that didn't break any laws themselves.
According to Gerson, Republicans have an opportunity to "clarify" themselves to the country. On Wednesday, the Dream Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a small margin, so it will go to the U.S. Senate. Will the GOP set aside strict ideology and govern in a way that's best for everyone? Or will they, like Democrats did with the Teachers' Union, be controlled by the fringe of their party?