California Nightmares: Reflections on the “California Dream Act”

This Saturday, October 8, Governor Jerry Brown signed the second half of the “California Dream Act,” allowing illegal immigrants in California to receive public financial aid for higher education at the University of California system, the Cal State system, and California’s community colleges. California, like Texas, had already allowed illegal immigrants to attend state institutions of higher education at in-state rates (a difference of about $22,000 a year, or over $90,000 for the course of a four-year bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley), and the first half of the Dream Act, passed this summer, allowed illegal immigrants in California to receive privately-funded scholarships to attend California institutions of higher education. The movement behind the legislation, spearheaded by State Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, parallels the failed attempt to introduce a federal Dream Act that would have given illegal immigrants the opportunity to obtain citizenship if they met basic conditions (“good moral character”) and either completed two years of college successfully, or served in the US military for two years.

The passage of the California Dream Act worries me; I would disagree with the legislation itself as well as the general outlook towards immigration it reflects. More deeply, the bill underscores the dynamics that have led California to near-bankruptcy and a loss of the self-confidence and dynamism that once defined the state. Unfortunately, it provides further evidence that the state is headed in generally the wrong direction, and as I have written before, while I deeply care for the state as a place that I grew up, it appears unlikely that it will be possible for many young Americans to build a 21st-century life for themselves in the Golden State if present trends in policy continue.

Jerry Brown, who signed the Dream Act yesterday

So what is the first-level problem? As analyses of the Dream Act have shown, the number of people actually affected by this legislation is triflingly small: about 35,000 students across the UC system, the Cal State system and the community college, which combined enroll over 3.5 million students total. On some practical level, in other words, the legislation is unlikely to immediately bankrupt the state. Moreover, several economic studies have quantitatively underscored the point that taking a vindictive approach towards illegal immigrants, many of who were brought to the USA under circumstances beyond their control, is pointless. Barring sweeping federal immigration reform (which is unlikely until a second Obama term, if that happens, and likely to be difficult for a President Romney or Perry to carry out given his base), the best practice is probably to allow young illegal immigrants the opportunity to educate themselves, in California, as part of a longer-term plan to assimilate into American culture and institutions. Any calls, in other words, to restrict educational opportunities to illegal immigrants per se have, in other words, to be rejected. Creating an uneducated underclass is not the recipe for California’s long-term success.

However, we run into problems as soon as the issue of subsidies for illegal immigrants come into question. While I can understand the economic and cultural benefits of bringing the illegal aliens who are already in California through higher education – provided that the curricula promote general cultural literacy and/or technical skills as opposed to what can become anti-assimilationist cultural studies programs – I do not understand why California taxpayers should be asked to subsidize the education of individuals who came to the United States illegally, both at all, but especially ahead of residents of other states. I am unaware of a principled argument that jurists or supporters of the Dream Act have been able to marshall to explain why, in effect, residents of, say, Virginia, Massachusetts, Alabama, and so on, should be given less preferential treatment to someone who has paid into California finances and a shared American cultural project even less.

Higher education is important for civilization and the economy, but asserting that California higher ed is a right of all victimized peoples of the world doesn't make sense

True to form, immigration reform movements have filed lawsuits to end the in-state tuition proviso in California higher education. A group of conservative lawyers from the Immigration Reform Law Institute, an outfit based in Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against the state of California on this very point last year, arguing on the basis of a 1986 federal education law that barred states from giving “any postsecondary benefit” to an “alien who is not lawfully present in the United States on the basis of residence within a state.” The California Supreme Court, however, rejected this analysis, saying that in-state tuition regulations were based primarily on having graduated a high school in California, not the residency requirement. The result is that illegal immigrants can move directly to California institutions of higher education, whereas many American citizens whom I have spoken with attending Berkeley have reported their frustration with the process of finding an apartment, finding some job in the Bay Area to support themselves for a year while they establish residency, and only then beginning their undergraduate or graduate education at the university – a result that doesn’t square with most Americans’ intuitions about educational privilege, I would suspect.

The move to extend public monies for scholarships to illegal immigrants extends this analysis to a point that I suspect many Californians would not be willing to support in a public referendum. Most basically, I ask myself: why is it appropriate to extend taxpayer money to people who are not even US citizens, and then a) charge other US citizens twice as much money to get their education in the state, and b) refuse to provide financial aid to these other US citizens? Much of the rhetoric in support of the Dream Act, like that of Senator Hatch, raises the totally appropriate concerns about the difficulties illegal immigrants face in finding work in California and the opportunities that are closed off to them if and when they cannot obtain higher education. At the same time, however, plenty of American citizens have trouble finding work in California. Many law-abiding California residents whose parents worked in the state, paid into state financial coffers, and so on, have trouble themselves financing their higher education, to say nothing of residents of, say, Florida, who would like to attend UCLA. Hatch’s statement is true, of course, but I think it misses the fundamental point here. Illegal immigrants from, say, Uzbekistan to California would also have a hell of a time finding work and education without significant financial support. But California taxpayers cannot be expected to help out every aggrieved party and open their resources to be used by anyone, and citizenship in the same federal state seems a much stronger claim to resources than victimhood or abstract plight to me.

The market at work, but good for US community and citizenship?

More broadly, of course, the Dream Act touches on deeper issues relevant to California’s present and future. Part, I think, of what so upsets people further to the right of me when it comes to immigration in California (or the American West more broadly) is the lack of serious efforts towards assimilating or promoting assimilation, either on the part of immigrants themselves or by state-level institutions. America, as authors like Joel Kotkin have pointed out, thrives in part because it takes in so many immigrants, and one key advantage for the USA in the 21st century will be its ability to keep taking and mobilizing talent from all across the world. And when a carefully negotiated balance between multiculturalism, education, and celebrating immigrant cultures can be found, America stands out as one of the most impressive places I’ve been to in the world. A friend of mine who works in Washington, having just left a seminar where foreign students were bashing on the United States as anti-Muslim and an imperialist power happened to walk by an Afghan-American cultural festival on the Mall where Afghan immigrants were celebrating Nowruz and giving out free plov and dumplings to passerby – speaking in Dari and Pashto among themselves, but all well-educated and fully fluent in English. When in Omaha this September, my taxi driver to the airport was a Sudanese Muslim from the north of the country who, after years of exhausting himself as an illegal immigrant in Mubarak’s Cairo (he thought Mubarak was a great leader, but that’s another story), had managed to obtain US citizenship and was supporting his family by driving taxis in the Midwest, where he had been placed. In Los Angeles later that September, I had the opportunity to sample Salvadorean pupusas at a wonderful restaurant in Hawthorne where young professional Asian-American couples on dates mingled with my mother and I out for lunch, and Salvadorean families out for a weekend lunch. Everyone gets along – more or less – and sure, perhaps people marry within their ethnic communities, but this American civilization of great ethnic food in strip malls, Anglophone Afghans on the Mall even at a time of war, and Africans in Nebraska is something I treasure.

California, however, has largely gone in a different direction from this. Parents in parts of Los Angeles less affluent (and less white) than the part I grew up in complain of how much class time has to be spent explaining concepts in Spanish to students – even still at the high school level. Vast regions of Los Angeles effectively have no English-language signage; everything is in Spanish. Often, jobs in the public sector virtually require that employees be bilingual in English and Spanish. The fact that red-meat conservatives who extol the brilliance of markets bristle at the fact that their skills may not actually be up to what is needed is amusing when it comes to Spanish as a requirement for so many jobs in California, but the fact that large sectors of the population are unable to communicate in the major language of the country reveals deeper problems with the educational institutions. Moreover, the lack of strong leadership figures within the Latino community to promote a vision of distinctly American identity as opposed to Latino particularism hinders assimilation, too. Figures like Sonia Sotomayor and Alberto Gonzales are standouts of how American Latinos can get to high places in American life, but whenever I return to Los Angeles, I am struck by how many large swaths of the city are filled with monolingual young American Latinos who have been disserved by their high schools, invisible in American public life now and unlikely to be able to make a distinctive contribution to a multiethnic American culture.

From crowded classrooms to crowded prisons, Californian social policy has been a disaster

Changing the system in California seems, moreover, to be a lost cause for the time being. Many of the Democratic Party politicians who supported the California Dream Act rely heavily on Latino support and the public unions for their money and votes. Over the last thirty years, in large part because of this coalition, California has gone from being one of the most economically dynamic states in the Union to one of the most taxed, most regulated, and least job-producing states in the country. California has some of the most overcrowded prisons in the country, and some of the lowest-performing schools, too. The crippling pension obligations owed to the unions make California a perfect example of the blue social model that is coming across at the seams all across America today. The state GOP could play a constructive role in this conversation and towards reforming the state, but it unfortunately remains enthralled with an ideology of unrestricted free markets, tax cuts as a panacea, and a lack of compelling reforms when it comes to immigration. The passing of time and the inability of taxpayers to pay for it all will force reform over the long term – and that’s why it’s important to keep generating ideas – but the existing party structure seems incapable of carrying out reform in the Golden State.

What to do over the long term? While I’m happily engaged in scholarly work for the moment, I would be supportive of referenda to repeal the Dream Act or at least reform it into part of a larger plan that tackles immigration reform head-on rather than giving out freebies to illegal immigrants while denying these same privileges to US citizens. While, outside of a small élite of young professionals working in tech companies, venture capital, management consulting, and banking, I would discourage friends from trying to make their career in California given the structural problems today, part of a long-term solution for the state’s woes will have to involve education reform, curbing some of the privileges of the public-sector unions, and promoting – both in the sphere of policy proposals as well as ideas – norms about American citizenship and entitlement that are just but will not strip American citizenship of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges that we normally associate with the status.

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