America Needs DREAMers to Fuel the 21st Century Economy
Abandoning These Immigrants Would Fail a Moral Test
Six months isn’t very long, but it’s long enough to show what kind of country we are.
President Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era DACA program gives Congress six months to come up with a better idea—better, say, than throwing 800,000 people out of the country whose only offense was being brought here as children by their parents.
The decision throws into chaos the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people—more than 90 percent of whom are in school or working, according to a recent study co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress.
But the argument is also economic, with strong implications for our nation’s future workforce and for our ability to prosper. By providing these young people a clear path to permanent residency, we would offer a jolt of promise for a country in need of economic revival.
These DREAMers, as we often call them, represent a promising bench of human potential whose skills can be unleashed in the 21st century workforce.
Resolving this immigration challenge is important now—at a time when, simply put, we must attract a wide array of motivated and talented people from around the world to our culture of opportunity, even while cultivating our own homegrown talent. As a private foundation, we cannot endorse specific legislative solutions, but it’s worth noting there’s broad support among both parties for doing something to help these young people who could be deported through no fault of their own.
In large part, that’s because the economy increasingly demands people with skills and abilities that can only be honed through education beyond high school. This includes both people studying in the United States and those who come here through pragmatic, targeted immigration policies.
Contrary to the immigrants-take-jobs rhetoric that has prevailed in recent years, the traditional immigrant narrative centers on education and access to new opportunities. First-generation arrivals work hard and sacrifice for their children. Succeeding generations enter the middle class, where education is a driver of every next step and newly opened door. The cycle repeats, with earlier arrivals paving the way for others to work their way up the economic ladder.
Today, however, too few Americans, whether natural or foreign-born, have the education and training to advance in the post-recession economy. Opportunities for people who do not have high-quality credentials beyond a high school diploma are shrinking.
The economic imperative to earn a degree or other credential applies to all industries and sectors. Manufacturing lost 2.7 million jobs during the last recession, and only 1.7 million have come back. Of those, only a fraction required a high school education or less.
Of the 11.6 million jobs created since 2008, 99 percent went to workers who had at least some post-high school education. And when Americans don’t have the postsecondary learning they need to get ahead, the entire country lacks the skilled workers needed to grow and thrive—and compete globally.
There’s an answer, however: Right now, just over 45 percent of Americans have earned post-high school degrees and certificates. But if we could get to at least 60 percent of working-age Americans—whether born here or not—with degrees or other postsecondary credentials, that could ensure the nation continues to lead the world economically.
We can’t get there without welcoming talented newcomers, including those who are already here and have integrated into American society.
Part of the challenge has been the U.S. immigration system is tilted primarily toward reuniting families. Data for the most recent fiscal year show the United States provided green cards to 226,000 members of extended families, compared with 140,000 people who were coming to fill jobs.
I favor family reunification, unequivocally. It’s a morally just policy, one that reflects the values of the nation. But unlike the systems in places like Canada and Australia, which prioritize immigrants who possess in-demand skills or who already have a job offer, it does not also help us address our need for talent.
Attracting and retaining more hard-working immigrants, including DREAMers, who are motivated to learn will help create more jobs for all Americans, as newcomers have done for many generations.
In the current debate, the next steps can help set the course for a future of promise. The president’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program within six months is a test of our humanity in dealing with hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. It’s also a test of our commitment to finding the talent our country desperately needs.
Even amid the disappointment many are feeling, there’s reason to be optimistic: There’s a bipartisan drive to find a solution. And it always helps to have a deadline when negotiating.
And in this case, while the deal itself may face a six-month countdown, the hopes of the DREAMers are another matter:
Dreams don’t have deadlines.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, whose goal is to prepare more Americans for informed citizenship and success in a global economy, and author of the book America Needs Talent.