Last week, the DREAM Act failed. DREAM is the cutesy acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Had Congress, in its lame duck session, passed the bill, young people in the U.S. illegally would have been able to acquire citizenship just by spending a couple of years in college.
President Obama called the vote to block the DREAM Act "incredibly disappointing." He had pushed for the law, his spokesmen said, because it was an "education bill." that would bring "benefits to the country." But Congress held not a single hearing at which experts might have testified as to whether that claim holds water.
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid championed the DREAM Act during his re-election campaign in Nevada and probably won critical Hispanic votes as a result. But let's put politics aside and find consensus where we can: Obama's remarks carry the implication that U.S. immigration laws and policy ought to benefit U.S. citizens.
So start with this: In the current era, a time of global conflict and economic dislocation, why in the world do we still maintain a "green-card lottery," a program that allows tens of thousands of people to come live in the U.S. based on dumb luck? This year alone a record 15 million people entered America's luck-of-the-draw immigration program that offers a quick path to legal and permanent residence to 50,000 aliens a year.
The "green-card lottery" was initially justified as yet another way to promote "diversity." I agree that diversity is nice. I disagree that it should trump all other values. And does no one see a racist assumption behind the notion that we won't end up with diversity if we open our doors (1) mainly to immigrants who have skills America needs and (2) only to immigrants who are eager to embrace such American ideals as individual freedom, Constitutional government and the rule of law?
I'm sure some of those who win the lottery make important contributions to their adopted nation. But not all: Hesham Mohammed Ali Hedayet, the Egyptian-born attacker at Los Angeles Airport in 2002 -- he killed two people at an El Al ticket counter -- was in the U.S. legally despite the fact that he had overstayed his visitor's visa because his wife was a green-card lottery winner.
According to the State Department those who come to the U.S. through the lottery receive the same stringent review as do other immigrants. But how stringent is that? Faisal Shahzad was naturalized as a U.S. citizen only months before he attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square. At sentencing, the judge asked if he hadn't sworn allegiance to America. "I did swear but I did not mean it," Shahzad said. Was no one aware that Shahzad had recently spent five months in North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have taken refuge? Did no one try to find out what he was doing there? (In fact, he was studying Bomb-making 101 at a terrorist training camp.)
Surely, as President Obama suggested, Americans deserve an immigration policy that furthers the American national interest. Surely, that means our lawmakers do not needlessly increase national security risks or further weigh down a limping economy.
That does not mean locking all the nation's doors. Indeed, economic analyst Amity Shlaes has argued that one way to rescue Social Security would be to bring in "100,000 additional skilled immigrants who pay Social Security up to the cap." Do that while also resetting the base pension to rise no faster than inflation and: "Voila -- the pension program's shortfall is gone as fast as a Crumb's cupcake at a Christmas party."
Immigration reform should be a top priority item for the new Congress. Almost everyone agrees on that. But would it not make sense to start with repeal of the green-card lottery as well as serious border security? Wise nations, like wise individuals, do not leave such critical issues to chance.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org