Michelle Rhee Joins Parent Blame Game in DREAM Act Support

The controversial champion of education reform joins several high profile figures in using faulty rhetoric to support undocumented students.

By Julianne Hing Jul 07, 2011

The DREAM Act can now count controversial education reformer and former Washington, D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee among its broad and varied coalition of supporters.

Over the weekend Rhee wrote on the blog of her new education reform advocacy group, Students First, that she supported the rights of undocumented youth to pursue their educational dreams in the U.S. via the bill. The DREAM Act is a narrow bill that would allow a select portion of undocumented youth who clear a host of hurdles and commit at least two years to college or the military to eventually become eligible for citizenship.

Rhee writes an unequivocal endorsement of the bill and, in the process, falls in the familiar trap of putting undocumented immigrant youth up on a pedestal as she stomps on their parents. Such political framing is not unique to Rhee, and many of the bill’s fiercest advocates frame the issue similarly.

This May, when Senate Democrats reintroduced the DREAM Act, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the longest supporters of the bill, said: "The DREAM Act will give children brought to this nation by their parents through no fault of their own–children who in many cases have known no other country–the opportunity to earn legal status." 

It’s a common refrain among Democrats who support the bill. "We should not punish children for their parents’ past decisions," said Sen. Bob Menendez that day. Sen. Ben Cardin added that the DREAM Act ought to become law because it "is a compassionate bill that recognizes that we should not hold innocent children responsible for the sins of their parents."

Rhee wrote on the blog:

Immigration is not my area of expertise, but I know that the current policy has implications for our education system and isn’t working for kids. It’s wrong to punish children for the actions of their parents, and we should work to get this legislation enacted into law.

No child should be forced to live in the shadows and hide their identity, nor should any teacher or mentor have to cover up the truth. … Passing the DREAM Act is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. America has invested in these successful young people, and as a nation we should benefit from their hard work and success. In the DREAM Act, we have legislation that is good for kids and good for our country. It should become law.

The DREAM Act, which has been around for a full decade and has always enjoyed bipartisan support, was reintroduced in the 112th Congress after narrowly failing a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate last December. It passed the House a few days earlier in a historic vote; it was the first time the bill had cleared a chamber of Congress. Last week the bill was granted its first ever Senate hearing, during which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano both testified in support of the bill.

Rhee now joins the Obama administration, and a long and varied list of supporters, including high-profile Republicans like Colin Powell and military and defense personnel, university presidents and educators, and labor and faith groups. 

The characterization that undocumented youth ought not to be punished for "the actions of their parents" is one that many DREAMers, as undocumented youth who would benefit from the bill are often called, have themselves rejected. As they struggle to advance the bill, undocumented immigrant youth collect as many supporters as they can, but haven’t always embraced the framing of those who speak in their favor.

Georgina Perez, a DREAMer and immigrant rights activist from Georgia, was arrested in April for protesting her home state’s new ban that forbids undocumented immigrant students from enrolling in the state’s top five public colleges.

She said in a videotaped testimonial before she got arrested:

I was brought to this country by a very courageous woman. She’s my hero. She’s my mother. She left everyone and everything she knew behind in order for her to give me a better life so I’m not, I’m not going to let anyone or anything stop me from getting my higher education. I’m not going to let her sacrifices be in vain. I’m not going to blame her … I thank her for bringing me here.

Today many DREAMers seem to resist the false choice in front of them even as they work to convince the country that the narrow DREAM Act, which has become the only politically viable congressional bill on the table, is common-sense policy. DREAMers are exceptional, in large part because the strict provisions of the bill require them to be. But, DREAMers continue to argue, they are not the only immigrants who deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness.

"I’m not going to apologize for my mother bringing me here," Perez said in her video.

Someone tell Michelle Rhee that.