Colin Powell Tells Moderate GOP to “Come Out,” Back DREAM Act

The general inserts himself into Washington's immigration debate at a crucial political moment.

By Jorge Rivas, Kai Wright Sep 20, 2010

Colin Powell this weekend urged moderate Republicans to "come out" and support the DREAM Act in particular and immigration reform more broadly, inserting himself in Washington’s immigration debate at a crucial political moment. Powell’s is a now-rare conservative voice in support of creating pathways to citizenship and it comes as Democrats are frantically rallying votes to pass the DREAM Act as part of the defense authorization bill this week.

In a Sunday morning appearance on "Meet the Press," Powell assessed the influence that tea party activists have had on the GOP. "I consider myself a moderate Republican," Powell began. "I have very, very moderate social views, and I’m pretty strong on, on defense matters. And I think there is a party in there that wants to come out."

He then focused on immigration reform as the core example of how and why moderate Republicans like himself need to step up.

"We can’t be anti-immigration," Powell declared. "Immigrants are fueling this country. Without immigrants, America would be like Europe or Japan with an aging population and no young people coming in to take care of it. We have to educate our immigrants. The DREAM Act is one way to do that."

Powell went on to explain that the DREAM Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who go to college or serve in the military. "And that’s good," he insisted. "America is going to be a minority nation in one more generation. Our minorities are not getting educated well enough now. Fifty percent of our minority kids are not finishing high school. We’ve got to invest in education. We should use the DREAM Act as one way to do it. Whether it should be part of the defense bill or not is something that Congress will decide."

Powell’s point is one economists and demographers have been making for some time. Going into this year’s decennial census, four states–California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas–already had majority people of color populations; others in the South and West are expected to follow soon. The trend is due largely to those states’ continuing growth in young, immigrant residents. It’s a truth of demography worldwide that immigrant communities, as a whole, are younger than native-born populations and thus still building families and entering the workforce. Mainstream economists and demographers largely agree that developed nations depend upon these young immigrants to avoid having a population that is top heavy with aging, retiring workers. 

Powell echoed this argument:

In the next few years, we will discover that, between the ages of 15 and 64–the working ages of our people–most of those are going to be kept in that age group because of immigration and the children of immigrants. Whereas, in other parts of the world, the age of the population’s getting older and fewer people are working. So I’m telling you and I’m telling all of my citizens around the country that immigration is what’s keeping this country’s lifeblood moving forward. They enrich our culture with every generation.

It would have been nice to hear Powell, who is the child of Jamaican immigrant parents, talk about immigrants–whether documented or not–as not just workers but people who start businesses and become leaders and fall in love and have families that integrate into society. He did say that we should "treat our immigration population with respect, dignity and give them a path to citizenship."

But whether the argument is economic or moral, it’s been quite some time since a national Republican has supported immigration reform that goes beyond policing the border. Republican leadership has been united this campaign season in drumming up anxieties with unfounded assertions about violent crime involving immigrants and in calling for more border enforcement, despite the fact that the Obama administration has put more resources into closing the border than ever.

The timing of Powell’s remarks are also terribly significant. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will bring the DREAM Act to the floor as a rider to the defense authorization bill on Tuesday. Sen. John McCain has vowed to rally opposition. The Hill newspaper reports that five conservative Democrats who helped Republicans block the bill in 2007–Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana–have not yet decided how they will vote, though Pryor leans toward no. The Hill reports:

"It’s not one of the things I’m focused on right now, but at the appropriate time I will review it," Conrad said. 

"I’ll take a look at how it’s constructed. I haven’t made a judgment about it," said Dorgan. 

McCaskill was slightly more optimistic. "It depends on the language," she said. "I have some problems with the way the bill was drafted last time. I am certainly more comfortable with the notion that somebody who has been in the country for five years and who came here through the fault of their parents and not their fault ought to get a green card to serve in the military. I’m very sympathetic to that. I’m just looking at the drafting now." 

But Pryor is leaning no. 

"I’ll have to look at it and see, but my inclination is probably to vote against it again," he said. "But I want to look at it and see. I know there’s been some changes." 

A Landrieu spokesman said the Louisiana senator has not yet taken a position on the bill.

Powell’s remarks may well provide cover for these Democrats, if not Senate Republicans in voting for the DREAM Act as part of the larger defense bill.