Should those who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were children be granted a path to legalization and eventual citizenship if they have no criminal record and commit to two years of military service or college? 

The U.S. bishops think so and on Dec. 2 sent a letter to U.S. Congress in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which would accomplish this result. The act is currently before U.S. Congress during its lame-duck session. 

‘Sins’ of the parents 

Imagine a parent embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from his employer. A child benefits with a fancy home, designer clothes and the best private schools and colleges. After the embezzlement is discovered, the father is sent to jail and ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution. The child, even though she benefitted greatly from her parent’s wrongdoing, is not required, even if capable, to pay the debt of the father. 

Now, I am not equating entering the United States without documentation with embezzlement, but it makes for a simple, even if not perfect, analogy. 

Once upon a time in our Anglo-American legal culture, the sins of the parents were visited upon the child. When a person committed suicide, the state took his property, leaving the family destitute. If a parent died in debt, the debt passed down to his children.  

In the interest of both justice and mercy, the law no longer visits the “sins” of the parents on the child. The one exception to that rule is that children are saddled with their parent’s immigration decisions.  

Mired in controversy 

Mention illegal immigration and you are bound to get an earful with tempers flaring on both sides. Only Rip Van Winkle could have failed to notice that in the last four or five years it has been a central hot-button issue. Reacting to the federal government’s very pubic failure to solve, much less address, the issue, states have taken matters into their own hands. The issues are complex, and reasoned argument often gets drowned out in our 30-second sound-bite world. 

Without this larger controversy swirling in the background, I suspect that the DREAM Act, which fits within our tradition of not legally burdening children for the actions of their parents, would be relatively easy to pass. Unfortunately, it gets lost in the emotions surrounding the larger controversy. 

The act provides a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens who were brought to this country by their parents when they were children. Criminals and those who refuse to earn their way by committing to either military service or college are ineligible. In other words, this act would aid those who are ready, willing and able to contribute to American society.  

Societal benefits 

Children have no control over where their parents move them. Many of these children have no ties to their home countries and may have only limited knowledge of that country’s language and culture. Without a path to legalization, they remain part of an underground economy where they are subject to exploitation, where their talents will not be fully developed, and where their ability to contribute to the common good of the United States is greatly diminished. 

Late last month, the Los Angeles Times recounted the story of Luis Perez, who came to the United States from Mexico two decades ago at the age of 8 with his parents. His father worked construction jobs and his mother worked as a nanny to support the family in the United States. Today, Perez is studying for the bar exam after earning his law degree at UCLA. 

A Washington Post editorial tells the story of 24-year-old Michelle Rodriguez, who has lived in Oklahoma illegally since she was 5. Ever since Sept. 11, she has dreamed of joining the Marines. Her dream has been put on indefinite hold because of her immigration status. 

As the Washington Post put it: “By offering a leg up to youngsters with unblemished records and promising futures, the DREAM Act would, at a stroke, turn workers in the underground economy into taxpayers; expand the military’s recruitment pool at a time when war has stretched it thin; and induce more people from modest backgrounds to attend college, gaining critical skills to keep America competitive.”  

‘Compassionate solution’ 

On Dec. 2, Archbishop José Gomez, coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, encouraged Congress to pass the DREAM Act: “With the passage of the DREAM Act, we can welcome a new generation of Americans who one day will become the leaders of our nation. There are times when a proposal should be enacted because, simply put, it is the right thing to do. This is one of them.” 

He continued: “The DREAM Act represents a practical, fair and compassionate solution for thousands of young persons in our nation who simply want to reach their God-given potential and contribute to the well-being of our nation. I urge you to support this measure and call for its immediate enactment.” 

It is a fact that Congress and the president have failed to adopt and enforce sensible immigration laws, including border security and measures to decrease illegal immigration. Understandably many states and individuals are frustrated. But it makes no sense to take this frustration out on those who had no choice in coming to the United States.

Flaws in the system 

To the extent that the parents “broke the law” in coming to the United States, it is at odds with our legal system to require payment from the child. 

The typical illegal entrant does not break the law in the same sense as the embezzler, because our immigration laws, policies and culture possess a surreal “Alice in Wonderland”-like quality. 

The parents who entered or remain in the United States “illegally” have co-conspirators in the U.S. government and business. Even though the United States puts up a big stop sign, telling would-be immigrants not to enter the United States without proper authorization, it refuses to adequately enforce its laws, and jobs welcome unlawful immigrants with pay unavailable in their home country. 

Finally, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, one who takes what he needs for survival from one who has an abundance is not a lawbreaker. Although the question of what we should do with the parents is a subject to be fleshed out another day, it is clear that they are in a very different position than the greedy embezzler. For now, it is enough that we align our immigration policy with our general legal culture, which refuses to make children legally responsible for the acts of their parents. 

Michael Scaperlanda is the Edwards Family Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

State-By-State Look (sidebar)

Here are the top 10 states with the largest number DREAM Act beneficiaries, if the legislation passes (by percent): 

California 26 

Texas 12 

Florida 9 

New York 7 

Arizona 5 

Illinois 4 

New Jersey 4 

Georgia 3 

North Carolina 2 

Colorado 2 

Other states 25 

Source: Migration Policy Institute