WASHINGTON -- When I was a Senate staffer more than a decade ago, Republicans hit on a tactic to advance school choice. They kept narrowing the eligibility standard to cover poorer and poorer families with children in only the most spectacularly failing schools, daring Democrats to vote against the most sympathetic possible group of students. I remember one liberal senator saying in exasperation, "Someday, you are going to make this impossible to oppose."
The strategy didn't produce a law. But it was clarifying. It demonstrated that most Democrats would choose ideology, and the good opinion of teachers' unions, above the interests of the neediest children.
The DREAM Act now before Congress is similarly clarifying. The legislation would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. Applicants must have graduated from high school or gotten a GED. They would be given a conditional legal status for six years, in which they must complete two years of college or serve at least two years in the military. If they failed to meet the requirements -- or committed a crime (other than a non-drug-related misdemeanor) -- they would lose their legal status and could be deported. If they succeeded, they would be granted a green card and could apply for citizenship.
It would be difficult to define a more sympathetic group of potential Americans. They must demonstrate that they are law-abiding and education-oriented. Some seek to defend the country they hope to join. The Defense Department supports the DREAM Act as a source of quality volunteers. Business groups welcome a supply of college-educated workers. The Department of Homeland Security endorses the legislation so it can focus attention on other, more threatening, groups of illegal immigrants.
Critics counter that the law would be a reward for illegal behavior and an incentive for future lawbreaking. But these immigrants, categorized as illegal, have done nothing illegal themselves. They are condemned to a shadow existence entirely by the actions of their parents. And the DREAM Act is not an open invitation for future illegal immigrants to bring their minors to America. Only applicants who have lived in America continuously for five years before enactment of the law would qualify.