Opinion: Remember the Dream Act

Feliz Año Nuevo. And to those for whom the holiday season ended too soon, too bad you’re not Puerto Rican; because as I write this tens of thousands of children on the island are playing with toys and video games received just last night (January 5th), on the eve of the Dia de los Reyes, the big feast celebrating the visit of the three kings bearing gifts to the manger holding the new-born Christ child in Bethlehem. Because Santa Claus and Christmas trees are of Nordic, Germanic and English origin and are not really part of old Latino tradition, the loot received last night was placed in straw-lined boxes the kids put under their beds; good kids getting gifts; bad kids getting coal.

But for this nation’s Hispanics, naughty or nice, our political Nativity boxes were filled with coal, with 2010 ending badly for supporters of America’s last, best chance to take a small, humane step toward practical immigration reform.

I’m referring to the defeat of the modest Dream Act. Note that I’ve stopped capitalizing the acronym for the failed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which was designed to grant probationary legal status to undocumented high school graduates who entered the country before the age of 16, if they enrolled in college or served honorably in the military. I went with lower case letters because anti-immigration activists said the capital letters seemed too aggressive, as in DREAM OR ELSE WE MEXICANS WILL OVER-RUN YOUR COUNTRY!

Not that a softer sell of the bill would have been any more effective. My live, post-vote interview with illegal alien hunter Tom Tancredo is a vivid example of how political opponents of this compassionate legislation often distorted facts to stoke the flames of anti- immigrant hysteria.

First, Tancredo claimed on the air that implementation of the bill would cost tax payers “billions.” Not wanting to seem overly aggressive, I reminded the former congressman and Colorado gubernatorial candidate that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) stated the passage of the DREAM, (oops, Dream) Act would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion.

Tancredo also falsely stated that the kids granted legal status could then easily bring the rest of their families into the country, when in fact that process would have taken decades under the bill. He also willfully or negligently misstated the number of youngsters who would benefit from the bill; (Tancredo: “millions,” truth: 800,000); and the top age of eligibility (Tancredo: age 35, truth: age 29).

At least Mr. Tancredo was fair-minded enough to write my producer after the show and say,

“Please pass on to Geraldo my apologies for misstating the age of eligibility in the DREAM Act. I did not know it had been changed from that which was in the original bill. My bad, I’ll post this apology on FB.”

Although, as far as we can tell, he never did post his apology on Facebook, the fair-minded sentiments he expresses in his mea culpa show that, like most opposed to any action they perceive to be pro-illegal alien, Tancredo is not a bad person. He sincerely believes that the problem of porous borders overwhelms any argument for compassion, open-mindedness and inclusion when it comes to undocumented immigrants. I think he is wrong, although I have to admit that a majority of my Fox News viewers agree with him not me. But the fact I’m in the minority doesn’t change my view on the DREAM Act. It would have been an easy, inexpensive way to satisfy the longing of millions directly and indirectly affected by their immigration status.

As the vote on the bill was being tallied on the Senate floor, I broke with my usual practice of keeping the remote on FNC and watched the coverage on the Spanish-language networks, Telemundo and Univision. They carried the proceedings live, and coupled it with live shots from various Latino communities, which featured interviews with heart-broken students who would have qualified under the terms of the bill. With tears flowing down their faces, many of the students could not understand why a super-majority of 60 votes was needed to cut off senatorial debate; others had worked the phones tirelessly to rally support.

They came close. The final vote total was 55-41 in favor, five short of passage. Perhaps surprisingly given the current political climate, three Republican senators, including write-in, re-elected Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Richard Lugar of Indiana and lame duck Bob Bennett of Utah voted in favor. But five Democrats voted against the bill. They were Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who switched her vote to a "no" at the last minute. Worse in a way was newly elected Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia who totally chickened out, skipping Saturday's votes for a Christmas party.

As in the Senate, December polls leading up to the vote showed a majority of the American people narrowly favoring passage of the bill; including many who believe illegal immigration is a desperately important national security issue. After all, the would-have-been beneficiaries of the bill came into America as innocent children through no fault of their own. Moreover, comprehensive background checks would have been required of all applicants. Still, the toxic nature of the larger immigration debate poisoned the Dream’s chance.

So what can those sympathetic to modest immigration reform do about the bill’s sad defeat?

At essentially the same time the Act was going down in flames, results from the U.S. Census were being published showing a sharp increase in the number of Latinos in the United States. Two hotbeds of anti-immigration fervor, Texas and Arizona were shown to have substantial increases in Latinos. Now, one third of all Texans are Hispanic. One quarter of all Arizonans are Hispanic. At some point these folk will come to understand that if they want laws sympathetic to people who look like them, they will vote their just interests. REMEMBER THE DREAM ACT.

Geraldo Rivera is a columnist for Fox News Latino.

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