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OPINION: Dream Act makes sense for immigrants and U.S. economy

The bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act has been distorted as an amnesty program. But the real relief it offers is to a society in desperate need of service workers, and a military strapped for new soldiers. The Dream Act could be a dream come true for a country mired in recession.

The act paves a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and who have lived here for at least five years - provided they can demonstrate they're of good moral character and either attend college or serve in the military for two years.

For nearly a decade, it has stalled in Congress, obscured in a haze of politicized rhetoric. This September, Senate Democrats piggybacked it onto a major military spending bill, which Senate Republicans blocked. Both sides accused opponents of trying to curry favor with either nativist or immigrant voting blocs.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the bill as a stand-alone on the calendar of the lame-duck session, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also said she will reintroduce it. So the debate has been reignited, but the conversation seems to focus entirely on supporters and detractors, rather than on those who stand to gain - which includes not just immigrants, but also the American economy.

The estimated 65,000 unauthorized immigrants who graduate from high school each year currently have no legal employment or higher education options. Many become domestic servants, day laborers or factory workers. But with college degrees, they could train to become teachers, nurses or other skilled workers, increasing both their salaries and annual tax contributions. Through military service, they could receive specialized job and leadership training.

Higher paid, skilled workers live longer, healthier lives and participate more actively in the economy. Unauthorized immigrants are not only more likely to work lower-skilled, low-wage jobs, they are also likely to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on legal or health care costs. One-third of all children of unauthorized immigrant parents - even those children who are citizens - live in poverty and at risk of hunger.

Offering these individuals a chance to become legal, skilled workers has countless benefits to the economy. Detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants (most with no criminal record) costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Studies show that the Reagan administration's 1986 legalization program led to drastic income growth among legalized immigrants. The Dream Act goes the further step of pegging legalization to opportunities for education and social incorporation. Experts project it would inject billions of dollars into the economy through consumer spending, tax revenue, and savings on criminal justice and health care costs over the next decade.

Along with Arizona and its controversial immigration law, other states have taken hard-line stances on immigration. Publicly funded colleges in Georgia and North Carolina have banned unauthorized immigrants, and the governor-elect of Iowa campaigned on a pledge to overturn the 1982 Supreme Court decision including illegal immigrant children in the guarantee of universal K-12 public education.

States have every right to stanch the hemorrhaging of tax revenue. But unleashing a generation of undereducated people with no legal or labor rights will ultimately prove a devastating burden to a country with an aging population and fewer trained service professionals.

The children who were brought here illegally had no say in their migration, and under the provisions of the Dream Act, they will have spent their formative years as U.S. residents. When we punish them for a crime they didn't commit, we further punish our bruised economy.

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