Despite the DREAM Act’s low likelihood for Senate passage, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for a renewed awareness of the plight of undocumented students in advance of the measure’s first senate hearing this Tuesday.
"We just need the human potential, the tremendous capacity, to contribute to society, to contribute to our economy," Duncan said. "As a country, we have to do the right thing for our young people and for the nation."
Duncan, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow along with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley, was joined by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ret. Col. Margaret Stock on the Monday afternoon conference call with reporters.
The DREAM Act would give some undocumented immigrant students the chance to become permanent U.S. residents. To be eligible under the current bill, the undocumented students would need to have lived in the U.S. for five continuous years, have a clean criminal record, have graduated from high school and have completed two years of college or military service.
Duncan said he experienced the urgency of the issue firsthand when he lead Chicago's public schools. "I worked personally with a number of these young people back in Chicago," said Duncan, who CEO of Chicago Public Schools until 2009. "I urged them to work hard. ... I gave them my commitment that I would do whatever I could to try to support them."
"This one is hugely personal to me," he added. "We had many many students who happened not to have been born in America but who lived here for the vast majority of their lives," he said, who were also stellar students and community leaders.
Duncan called passing the DREAM Act "something we desperately need to do," citing the Jose Antonio Vargas’s The New York Times magazine story that ran this past weekend, in which the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist revealed himself as an undocumented immigrant. "I just wonder how many other potential Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists are out there who just never had the opportunity."
He and Emanuel called for bipartisan support of the bill, appealing to the country’s moral, economic and military well-being.
Emanuel said the issue was personal to him as well because his father and grandfather were immigrants. "They [DREAM Act-eligible students] have good moral standing," he said. "They’re trying to either go to college or serve their country."
Ret. Lt. Col. Margaret Stock said that the military’s impending recruiting crisis could be limited by opening up the DREAM-eligible population to enlistment. "They’re patriotic, they feel that serving in the military is an honorable thing and that they can serve our country by doing so," she said. "Unfortunately, today they’re barred from enlistment."
"The DREAM Act promises to enlarge dramatically the pool of highly qualified recruits," Stock said. She pointed to the Pentagon’s longitudinal studies that, she said, showed that non-citizens outperform citizens in combat.
"This is very real and could be a solution or a piece of the solution," Duncan said, citing three million unfilled high-skill high-wage jobs. "To not put this on the table would make no sense whatsoever."
But it’s unclear what putting the measure on the table could actually do. After previous failed attempts to pass the DREAM Act, Senate Democrats reintroduced the measure in early May. Unlike the efforts last session, which still fell short of the 60 votes necessary to prevent a Republican filibuster, the GOP now controls the House and has more Senate presence.
At the very least, Duncan said he wanted to raise awareness. "Take all these together, it simply makes no sense to perpetuate the status quo," Duncan said. "We’re hurting ourselves in a very unnecessary way here."
Supporters of the DREAM act say they don't want to be reduced to political fuel. In May, immigrant advocates called for Obama to stop using the DREAM Act as a campaign pledge, since his policies still allow the deportation of undocumented youth.
When HuffPost asked Duncan whether the administration plans to continue the deportation of DREAM-eligible students if the bill fails to find Republican support, he said more details would emerge from the hearing.
"Secretary Napolitano has been very clear that their priority is [deporting] folks that have engaged in criminal behavior," he said.
The reintroduction of the DREAM Act came shortly after the Departments of Justice and Education wrote a letter to the country’s schools reminding them of their obligations to educate all students, regardless of immigration status. The letter specified which documents schools are and are not allowed to request from students.