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Americans by Choice

How to Fill the College Education Gap

Steve Wilson is the author of The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream. Read more about Beacon’s immigration titles at “Beyond SB1070” on

Wilson_boys As our representatives once again consider how to legislate immigration reform, one of their first priorities should be to reconsider one languishing immigration program--The DREAM Act.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, first introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R) in 2001, aims to create educational equality. The legislation, currently on everybody's backburner, would allow certain undocumented immigrants to receive conditional residency if they either attend a university or join the U.S. military. To qualify, immigrants would have to enter the U.S. at age 15 or younger, graduate from an American high school, and have good moral character.

In the past, the bill has been promoted as a palatable form of immigration reform. It only affects people who entered the country as minors, presumably brought into the U.S. by their parents. These kids form a rapidly growing group today; about 2.4 million undocumented people aged 24 and under live in the U.S. right now.

But promoting the DREAM Act as legislation that should be passed, as a means of addressing some unfairness that exists because the alien minor didn't choose to enter the country, is wrongheaded. Not only is this sales pitch politically ineffective to most conservative politicians--after all the DREAM Act has been around, going nowhere, for a decade--but it misses a more dire predicament the U.S. faces today: we're running out of college graduates. The DREAM Act is a simple way to get more.

According to a recent report released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, "By 2018, [The United States] will need 22 million new workers with college degrees—but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million postsecondary degrees."

Here are some other numbers: Latino Americans are expected to make up more than 20 percent of the college-age population by 2020. Latinos already are our nation's largest minority group, and with white birthrates declining and the Latino population growing both through higher birthrates and immigration, the demographic future of America is simple. Latinos are going to be an increasing percentage of our population, and Anglos a shrinking percentage.

Since advanced degrees have traditionally been earned primarily by Anglos (71 percent of all 4-year degrees in 2007-2008), and since there are going to be fewer Anglos, then the U.S. needs to look for its additional college grads someplace else. The obvious place is our country's fastest-growing minority group, and that includes kids who grew up in America, even if their parents brought them here without permission.

Attempts to pass The Dream Act in the past have failed. Opponents say that the act is financially irresponsible and labeled it "Amnesty"--a dirty word nowadays. The assumption seems to be that if undocumented immigrant children are not given the chance to go to college, they will leave the country and go back "home." What is more likely, however, is that these under-educated young men and women will settle into unsatisfying jobs, start families, and increase the ranks of poverty. That doesn't help them or our country.

Recently, we've seen some undocumented young people risk their ability to stay in the U.S. by staging public protests about the DREAM Act in Arizona, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. These young men and women are politically active, bright, hard-working, and focused on long-term goals--the very people we need to run our country. By preventing this group of young men and women from going to college, we are ultimately not punishing them so much as we are punishing ourselves. Let's take the long-term view and revisit this practical piece of immigration reform legislation. Pass the DREAM Act and help fill our college education gap.