Waiting on a DREAM

Reaction to my Sunday feature on Carlos Rivera’s complicated dilemma has been interesting to say the least.

For those who missed it, I wrote a story about how Rivera, a 27-year-old international business student at the University of Montana, is facing deportation. Rivera’s mother brought him to the U.S. in1988 when he was just 6 years old. He’s been in the country ever since. By all accounts Rivera is an upstanding young man who has forged a successful career in business and is on his way to completing his college degree.

But last year he came to the attention of immigration officials and now he’s facing the prospect of returning to a country he hardly even remembers. His immigration hearing is in January.

Rivera’s hopes of staying in the country and finishing his degree could rest on the passage DREAM Act, a bill before Congress that would create a path toward citizenship for people in Rivera’s position.

The idea behind the act is simple: immigrant students who arrive in the country as children, graduate from a United States high school, stay out of trouble with the law and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment, can have the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.

The Senate debated a version of the bill in 2007, but it fell eight votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster by senators opposed to the measure.

The act has been introduced again, but it’s unclear if or when Congress will resume debate on the measure. Supporters of the bill estimate that they still are eight votes shy in the Senate.

Critics of the DREAM Act say is an attempt to create broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Roy Beck is executive director and founder of Washington, D.C.-based NumbersUSA, an organization that lobbied against the 2007 version of the DREAM Act and opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Beck said he’s sympathetic to Rivera’s situation, but added that the DREAM Act is not an appropriate path to citizenship for immigrant children who were brought to this country by undocumented parents.

“You can take a lot of these individuals and you can make a compelling case for their story,” Beck said. “If it was just this guy, I’ve got no problem with this guy being given amnesty. But there are apparently about 500,000 of these people in this country.”

Beck said the DREAM Act, as written, contains loopholes that would allow people who receive amnesty under the law to apply to have their family members put on a path toward citizenship.

He said that would lead to massive fraud and open the door to thousands of new immigrants who could pour into the country in order to take advantage of the amnesty provisions in the law.

“When you allow people to break the law, and then allow them to harvest what they broke the law to get, you encourage more illegal activity,” Beck said.

There are legitimate arguments to be made on all sides of the immigration debate. However, one of the criticisms that pops up over and over in the comments section on Sunday’s story has to do with illegal immigrants not paying taxes while benefiting from those who do.

According to this USA Today article, not only do many illegal immigrants pay taxes, but they may be paying more taxes than they owe, and they don’t collect the benefits:

The tax system collects its due, even from a class of workers with little likelihood of claiming a refund and no hope of drawing a Social Security check.

Illegal immigrants are paying taxes to Uncle Sam, experts agree. Just how much they pay is hard to determine because the federal government doesn’t fully tally it. But the latest figures available indicate it will amount to billions of dollars in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes this year. One rough estimate puts the amount of Social Security taxes alone at around $9 billion per year.

Paycheck withholding collects much of the federal tax from illegal workers, just as it does for legal workers.

The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t track a worker’s immigration status, yet many illegal immigrants fearful of deportation won’t risk the government attention that will come from filing a return even if they might qualify for a refund. Economist William Ford of Middle Tennessee State University says there are no firm figures on how many such taxpayers there are.

“It’s a mistake to think that no illegal immigrants pay taxes. They definitely do,” said Martha Pantoja, who has been helping Hispanic immigrants this tax season as an IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer for the non-profit Nashville Wealth Building Coalition.

I can say from interviewing Rivera that he’s not looking for a free ride. He wants to earn his degree and become a productive member of society just like every one of his American classmates. He grew up in the United States from the age of six and has thought of himself as a U.S. citizen his entire life. Was he naïve about the consequences of living in the U.S. as an undocumented alien once he learned of his status? Sure. I think he’d admit that. Does that make him a bad person worthy of the kinds of attacks I’ve read in the comments to the story? Certainly not.