Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Bring us your young, hard-working immigrants

Harvard sophomore Eric Balderas, valedictorian of his high school class in San Antonio and would-be cancer researcher, was almost deported on the way to Harvard in June to start a summer job. His parents brought him to the United States illegally from Mexico at the age of 4 and he didn't have the right papers.

Fortunately, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., personally intervened. Eric visited him on Wednesday with Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust to thank the senator and to promote his Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act would solve Eric's problem and that of some other undocumented children.

The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has proposed adding the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill when it comes up for a Senate vote next week. Many Republicans are opposed, either because they are against the bill, or, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, because they say the DREAM Act is irrelevant to the defense bill.

The bill would grant “conditional status” to people under 35 who came to the United States before the age of 16; who have been in the country for five years or longer; and who have a high school diploma or GED.

Under conditional status, young people could work and study in America, as well as travel abroad. After six years of conditional status, immigrants could apply for permanent residency if they have completed at least two years of college or served in the military.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 2.1 million people, or 1.5 percent of our labor force, could try to pursue permanent residency, and 825,000, half a percent of the labor force, would be likely to meet the educational criteria to qualify.

Even though these numbers are small, these young people have the potential to make an important contribution to our economy. If their status is regularized, and they are placed on a path to becoming U.S. citizens, they might be able to go to college and get well-paying jobs.

Although America is climbing out of a recession and the unemployment rate is still high, the nation has seen extraordinary growth in gross domestic product and employment over the past 25 years, in great part because of the flexibility of our labor markets and the skills immigrants bring to our country. America needs immigrants with their skills, energy, and drive.

Many undocumented children such as Eric don't have the right papers because of missed deadlines and bureaucratic error. Nevertheless, their presence in America would benefit us because they are hard-working and talented, and produce streams of income taxes and Social Security payments to bolster our fiscal position.

One indication of the potential benefits of undocumented immigrant children is to look at how well their peers — legal immigrant children — do as they grow up.

Many become high-achieving students, then outstanding workers and entrepreneurs. Undocumented immigrant children might do just as well, if not better, given the especially difficult circumstances that they had to overcome.

We live in an open, global economy, and we continually compete against other countries. We want firms to locate and expand in the United States, creating jobs here rather than going offshore. In order to do that, we want to keep the smartest entrepreneurs and workers here.

As senators consider the defense authorization bill next week, they should keep one question in mind: Why send the Eric Balderases of the world to some other country to compete against us?

Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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