Last week, the DREAM Act failed. DREAM is the cutesy acronym for "Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors." Had Congress, in its lame-duck session, passed the bill, young people in the U.S. illegally would have been able to acquire citizenship just by spending a couple of years in college.
President Obama called the vote to block the DREAM Act "incredibly disappointing." He had pushed for the law, his spokesmen said, because it was an "education bill" that would bring "benefits to the country." But Congress held not a single hearing at which experts might have testified as to whether that claim holds water.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid championed the DREAM Act during his reelection campaign in Nevada and probably won critical Hispanic votes as a result. But let's put politics aside and find consensus where we can: Obama's remarks carry the implication that U.S. immigration laws and policies ought to benefit U.S. citizens.
So start with this: In the current era, a time of global conflict and economic dislocation, why in the world do we still maintain a "green-card lottery," a program that allows tens of thousands of people to come live in the U.S. based on dumb luck? This year alone, a record 15 million people entered America's luck-of-the-draw immigration program, which offers a quick path to legal and permanent residence to 50,000 aliens a year.
A two-sentence digression: Does this growing demand for American citizenship not suggest that reports of America's increasing unpopularity abroad have been exaggerated? The irony is that many of those who tell pollsters how awful they think America is would move their families here in a New York minute if they got the chance.
The "green-card lottery" was initially justified as a way to promote "diversity" in the immigrant population. I agree that diversity is nice. I disagree that it should trump all other values. And does no one see a racist assumption behind the notion that we won't end up with diversity if we open our doors (1) mainly to immigrants who have skills America needs and (2) only to immigrants who are eager to embrace such American ideals as individual freedom and adherence to the Constitution as the supreme law of the land?
I'm dubious about America's need for less-skilled labor. It strikes me as curious that, at a time of high unemployment, we have so many people born and raised halfway around the world driving cabs in Washington, New York, and other cities.
No doubt some of those who win the lottery do make important contributions to their adopted nation. But not all: Hesham Mohammed Ali Hedayet, the Egyptian-born attacker of Los Angeles Airport in 2002 — he killed two people at an El Al ticket counter — was in the U.S. legally despite the fact that he had overstayed his visitor's visa because his wife was a green-card-lottery winner.
According to the State Department, those who come to the U.S. through the lottery receive the same stringent review as do other immigrants. But how stringent is that? Faisal Shahzad was naturalized as a U.S. citizen only months before he attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square. At the sentencing, the judge asked if he hadn't sworn allegiance to America. "I did swear but I did not mean it," Shahzad said.
He added that Muslims like him "do not accept your democracy or your freedom because we already have Sharia law and freedom." Was it not possible to determine prior to granting Shahzad citizenship that there was nothing moderate about his interpretation of Islam? Did no one know that he had recently spent five months in North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have taken refuge? Did no one try to find out what he was doing there? (He was studying Bomb-making 101 at a terrorist training camp.)
Surely, as President Obama has suggested, Americans deserve an immigration policy that advances our national interest. Surely, that means one that does not needlessly increase national-security risks or further weigh down a limping economy.
That does not mean locking all the nation's doors. Indeed, economic analyst Amity Shlaes has argued that one way to rescue Social Security would be to bring in "100,000 additional skilled immigrants who pay Social Security up to the cap." Do that while also resetting the base pension to rise no faster than inflation and: "Voila — the pension program's shortfall is gone as fast as a Crumb's cupcake at a Christmas party."
Immigration reform should be a top priority for the new Congress. Almost everyone agrees on that. But would it not make sense to begin with the repeal of the green-card lottery and the implementation of serious border security? Wise nations, like wise individuals, do not leave critical issues to chance.