The High Costs of the DREAM ACT

Missing from the debate over the latest amnesty effort is the costs with which the DREAM Act would burden U.S. taxpayers. New research by my organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, finds that that the bill’s college-attendance requirements will cost U.S. taxpayers $6.2 billion in subsidies for educating the illegal aliens who are expected to enroll to get a green card.

Assuming no fraud, we conservatively estimate that 1.03 million illegal immigrants will eventually enroll in public institutions (state universities or community colleges) as a result of the DREAM Act. That is, they meet the residency and age requirements of the act, have graduated high school, or will do so, and will apply. On average, each illegal immigrant who attends a public institution will receive a tuition subsidy from taxpayers of nearly $6,000 for each year he or she attends, for total cost of $6.2 billion a year, not including other forms of financial assistance they may also receive.

The problem is that the DREAM Act does not provide funding to states and counties to cover the costs it imposes. Since enrollment and funding are limited at public institutions, the act’s passage will require some combination of tuition increases, tax increases, or a reduction in spaces available for American citizens at these schools. This may have the effect of reducing the educational opportunities that would otherwise have been available to American citizens and legal immigrants.

Advocates of the DREAM Act argue that its passage would significantly increase tax revenue because with a college education recipients will earn more and pay more in taxes over their lifetime. However, any hoped-for tax benefit is in the long-term, and will not help public institutions deal with the large influx of new students the act creates in the short-term. Additionally, given the limited spaces at public institutions, there will almost certainly be some crowding out of U.S. citizens—reducing their lifetime earnings and tax payments.

It is also important to remember that the DREAM Act only requires two years of college; actually graduating is not necessary. The income gains for having some college, but no degree, are modest.

Furthermore, because college dropout rates are high—10.2 million U.S. citizens under age 35 dropped out of college in 2009, for example—many illegal immigrants who enroll at public institutions will likely not complete the two years the act requires, meaning taxpayers will bear the expense without a long-term benefit.

Costs are only one part of the problem. In every one of its iterations over the years, the DREAM Act has had four, additional fatal flaws:

First, the act is billed as legalizing those brought as infants or toddlers, and yet it covers people who came here up to age 16. The examples used by advocates are nearly always people who were brought here by their parents at a very young age. However, the DREAM Act is written much more broadly than advocates let on. If the point is to provide amnesty to those whose identity was formed in the United States, then a much lower age cutoff is warranted. That, combined with a requirement of at least ten years’ continuous residence here, seems like a much more defensible place to draw the line.

Second, like any other amnesty, the DREAM Act is likely to result in massive fraud. Approximately one-fourth of those legalized under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act received amnesty fraudulently, including Mahmud Abouhalima, a leader of the first World Trade Center attack. The fraud in that first big amnesty program was so pervasive as to be almost comical, with people claiming work histories here that included picking watermelons from trees and digging cherries out of the ground.

And yet what does the DREAM Act say about fraud? As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) points out at least one version of the measure “prohibits using any of the information contained in the amnesty application (name, address, length of illegal presence that the alien admits to, etc.) to initiate a removal proceeding or investigate or prosecute fraud in the application process.” This is like playing a slot machine without having to put any money in — any illegal alien can apply, and if he wins, great, but if he loses, he cannot be prosecuted even if he lied through his teeth about everything.

Third, like all amnesties, the DREAM Act will attract new illegal immigration. Prospective illegal immigrants, considering their options, are more likely to opt to come if they see that their predecessors eventually hit the jackpot. In 1986, we had an estimated 5 million illegals, 3 million of whom were legalized. We now have more than twice as many as before the last amnesty, and they’ve been promised repeatedly that if they hold out a little longer they’ll be able to stay legally.

To minimize this you need stringent enforcement measures. This was the logic of the 1986 amnesty and the recent “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals. The critique of such “grand bargains” has been that the illegals get their amnesty but the promised enforcement never materializes. If the sponsors of DREAM were serious, they would include muscular enforcement measures as proof of their bona fides, such as mandatory use of E-Verify for all new hires, explicit authorization of state and local governments to enforce civil immigration law, and full implementation of an exit-tracking system for all foreign visitors, for starters. And the legal status of all the amnesty beneficiaries would remain provisional until the enforcement measures were up and running and passed judicial muster.

Finally, all amnesties reward illegal immigrants — in this case, both those brought here as children and the adults who subjected them to this limbo. Any serious proposal to legalize young people brought here as infants or toddlers would need to prevent the possibility that their parents and other adults responsible for bringing them here illegally would ever receive any benefit from the amnesty, namely, future sponsorship as legal immigrants.

In its current form, the DREAM Act remains a flawed and costly amnesty.

Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.