Ed. Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts from top Administration Officials on the importance of the DREAM Act. Read Education Secretary Arne Duncan's post here, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis's contribution here, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's post here, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's here, and the post from Dr. Clifford L. Stanley, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, here.
From 2000 to 2006, while I was Governor of Iowa, approximately 60 percent of the total population increase in the state was directly attributable to immigrants. Our economy thrived. The new population contributed to local economies, paid taxes, became valued and productive members of their communities and helped lead an economic revitalization in the state.
To continue this progress, I established ‘welcome centers’ to help newly arrived families get settled, work with local schools and civic institutions, and offer workforce development programs and English language courses. And we selected three ‘model cities’ and gave them resources to be more receptive to immigrants.
I am proud of this work, and I think we can do more to encourage and recognize the positive impact that legal immigrants have on communities. But today our nation is failing a different group of immigrants who should have an opportunity to make a difference too.
These are the children of undocumented immigrants who did not choose to come here – but who were raised in our communities and educated in our schools. These young people should help make up the next generation of leaders – our future doctors, teachers, and scientists – but their legal status prevents them from going to college, or getting a good job.
To reap the benefits they will offer our nation – and give them the fair shake they deserve – Congress should pass the DREAM Act, which allows the best and the brightest young people to earn their legal status after a rigorous process. Only children who arrived before they were 16, get a high school degree, and complete two years of college or join the military will qualify for the DREAM Act. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the measure last week in a bipartisan vote that included the support of eight Republicans. Now all eyes are on the Senate.
Our rural communities have a particular stake in this legislation. Far too many are losing population. And many of the best minds in their high school classes choose to pursue opportunities away from home.
Think of the message we can send to the children of immigrant farm workers – for example – by inviting them to be active and productive citizens in the rural communities where they grew up. They might become future partners of USDA and make the transition from farm workers to farm owners who help feed this nation. The values they learned in rural America – the importance of hard work and of giving back – may lead them to be a teacher, an entrepreneur, or serve our nation in the military.
We must act now. Rural America and the nation should not have to wait any longer. We should not punish children and young adults for decisions their parents made – our values and our best interests tell us otherwise.
The Obama administration will continue to fight for a comprehensive immigration solution that includes AgJobs and a stable workforce for our farms. But in the meantime, the DREAM Act embodies many of those same values – by giving folks the opportunity they deserve to work hard, strengthen our economy, and contribute to our great nation.
Tom Vilsack is Secretary of Agriculture