You are hereWhere DREAM Failed

Where DREAM Failed

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Publication Date: 
24 December 2010

On December 18, during one of the busiest lame-duck sessions of Congress in years, the U.S. Senate managed to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and kill the DREAM Act all within a matter of hours.

For progressives, it is hard to make sense of these seemingly contradictory votes. Both DADT and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act hinge on principles of compassion and respect for those who wish to serve this country: eliminating DADT removed the barrier that has prevented gay men and women from openly serving in the military for 17 years, while passing the DREAM Act would have allowed minors who entered the country illegally become legal if they serve in the military or attend college for at least two years. The Senate decisions caused President Obama to call the repeal of DADT a historic step for civil rights “tempered by the defeat of another.”

Time may reveal that Senate Democrats struck a deal with Republicans to sacrifice the DREAM Act in exchange for DADT’s repeal. It would be yet another instance of Washington politics prevailing over the merits of an initiative.

In this light, it is worth recalling that immigrant supporters had every right to be as optimistic as the gay-rights activists. Both had outspoken support from the top, including President Obama who, as a presidential candidate, vowed to press for both policy changes. Obama’s cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, were also fully in favor of both initiatives.

Both measures too were buoyed by favorable government reports released prior to the votes. On November 30, the Pentagon released a nine-month study that concluded that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly posed a "low risk" of disruption to the armed forces. On December 2, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported that passing the DREAM Act would result in a deficit reduction of $1.4 billion over the next ten years, after accounting for spending.

DREAM Act supporters and anti-DADT activists also had celebrities on their side. Actresses Eva Longoria and America Ferrera supported the former and pop singer Lady Gaga spoke out on behalf of both.

The parallels are striking. But in one aspect there is a pronounced difference, the aspect perhaps most critical to many Senators: public opinion.

A poll conducted by Gallup earlier this month, found that 67 percent of Americans supported the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and only 28 percent opposed it. In contrast, only 54 percent of those surveyed supported the DREAM Act, with 42 percent in opposition.

Back in 1993, the year the Clinton administration enacted DADT, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed a very different attitude toward gays in the military. Fifty-two percent opposed it versus 40 percent in favor.

Since then attitudes toward homosexuality have evolved, with many more people now believing that it is an innate characteristic and not a choice. As one Republican mentioned as explanation for his change of heart toward DADT, there has been a “generational change.”

Attitudes on immigration have not similarly progressed and, in fact, may have worsened since the 1990s.

In 1994, in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 187 in California that prohibited illegal immigrants from applying for social and health services as well as attending public schools, a national USA Today, CNN and Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans did not support giving aid even to legal immigrants living here less than five years.

This year, a Pew national survey found that 64 percent of the public approves initiatives such as Arizona’s SB1070 law, which requires police to verify the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

In other words, even if there was an overt quid pro quo negotiation that led to the DREAM Act’s defeat, the Senate merely may have done what it most often does — follow rather than set trends.

Not long ago “coming out” put more than the military employment of a homosexual member of society in jeopardy. This courageous act of disclosure often meant public ostracism and even put the individual’s life at risk. Now we need only look at popular television to see how being ‘out’ has changed.

The hope of the Dreamers, as DREAM Act beneficiaries call themselves, is that the day will come when their “coming out” won’t be grounds for deportation. Being punished for coming into the country illegally, something many of them did when they were still too young to walk or talk, may one day look just as intolerant as does DADT today.

To publish Ms. Sanchez’s column, please contact the New York Times Syndicate:

Isabel Amorim Sicherle
in Sao Paulo
55-11-3812-5588
[email protected]

Ana Muñoz
in New York
212-556-5177
[email protected]