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Lloyd Billingsley
The DREAM and the Nightmare
In California, students are better off being illegal immigrants than legal.
March 30, 2012

Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California DREAM Act, which makes students in the country illegally eligible for grants and waivers to attend one of the state’s public colleges or universities. The students must have attended school in the state for three years, “affirm that they are in the process of applying to legalize their immigration status,” and show both financial need and academic achievement. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the DREAM Act, hails the legislation as a victory for those “in the country through no fault of their own.” Opponents such as Republican assemblyman Tim Donnelly—a first-term legislator not given to understatement—called Cedillo’s legislation the “California Nightmare Act,” said it is “morally wrong,” and would create “a new entitlement that is going to cause tens of thousands of people to come here illegally from all over the world.”

Poster children for the DREAM Act abound. Mandeep Chahal, for example, was six years old when her parents brought her to the United States from India. Chahal wants to be a doctor; her fellow students at Los Altos High School near Palo Alto voted her the person “Most Likely to Save the World.” That’s a tall order, but to deny such a person the opportunity seems unreasonable. “Many parents of these children pay taxes for many services they cannot get,” argues Cedillo.

Cedillo’s point implies that illegal immigrants are the only ones subject to this dynamic. But consider: my taxes subsidize the Medi-Cal system, which provides medical care for low-income state residents, but I couldn’t “get” health care that way, even in the year my income was so low that my daughter qualified for a Pell Grant. Likewise, the taxes of, say, a California welder help pay for top-drawer pensions and benefits for state government employees, but he can’t enjoy those benefits himself. Neither is he entitled to get a government job merely because his taxes help pay the salaries and benefits of workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles, CalTrans, the California Air Resources Board, the Franchise Tax Board, California’s Department of Education, the State Board of Equalization, the Coastal Commission, and on and on.

The taxes of a fast-food worker help subsidize the University of California at Berkeley, but nothing guarantees that taxpayer admission to Berkeley. The state’s Master Plan for Higher Education does guarantee everyone a place in the system, whether at a community college, a state university, or within the UC system. But no one is promised a place at the top, and the system grants no special favors to legal immigrants. When I came to the United States, legally, in 1977, I had been studying at the University of Windsor, a four-year school in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario. I wanted to continue my studies at San Diego State University but was not allowed to transfer because I hadn’t attended high school in California. SDSU administrators suggested I try the state’s community college system, which seemed a step down from what I had in mind. But eventually, I put two children through San Diego State. They’re now working in productive careers, a tax burden to no one. No legislation rewards parents for that achievement or for coming to the United States with proper documents.

Cedillo’s law, by contrast, rewards those who came to California illegally. Will the law, therefore, encourage more people to enter the state illegally, as Donnelly and other critics assert?

Recall how Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to several million undocumented immigrants. A quarter of a century later, the number of illegal immigrants stands at 11.5 million. It seems clear that the 1986 act didn’t discourage foreign nationals from entering the United States without signing the guest book. One of those who obtained citizenship under the Act was Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, who made his way through UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School and is now associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Quinones-Hinojosa and others who have spoken out in support of the DREAM Act often give the impression that their cases are typical of illegal aliens. Not exactly. Amnesty measures, however well-intentioned, usually bring unintended consequences.

Consider Ignacio Mesa Viera, subject of a recent front-page story in the Sacramento Bee. He came to the United States illegally in 1979 to work and help his family, as he explained, but was convicted on a drug offense in 1995. He was deported but returned to the United States, whereupon he was busted for another drug offense in 2008. Before his recent deportation, the U.S. government was paying for Viera’s kidney dialysis, a treatment that can cost more than $60,000 a year. “I imagine that the reason they don’t want to let me stay in this country,” Viera told the Bee, “is they don’t want to be paying for this.”

Cedillo and his colleagues need to know that everybody’s taxes pay for services they and their children “cannot get”—including kidney dialysis and other expensive medical treatments courtesy of the federal government. Meantime, as a University of California report noted last year, tens of thousands of middle-class, taxpaying legal residents are being squeezed out of an affordable college education even as the legislature contrives to provide scholarships for the children of illegal aliens. The lawmakers’ solution is to create yet another entitlement in the form of a new $1 billion scholarship program for students whose families earn less than $150,000 a year. Such is life in the Golden State, even with a DREAM Act in place.

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