John Rawls and the DREAM Act

November 28, 2011

Political Theory


In John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that justice finds its foundation in two principles: the liberty principle and the difference principle.  Rawls defines the Liberty Principle:

The first principle simply requires that certain sorts of rules, those defining basic liberties, apply to everyone equally and that they allow the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all.[1]

And the Difference Principle is defined by Rawls as:

Now the second principle insists that each person benefit from permissible inequalities in the basic structure. This means that it must be reasonable for each relevant representative man defined by this structure, when he views it as a going concert, to prefer his prospects with the inequality to his prospects without it.[2]

Taken together, these two principles offer us a framework to analyze a particularly salient political issue during this Presidential campaign: illegal immigration.

On March 26, 2009, Senator Richard Durbin and Representative Howard Berman introduced the DREAM Act to Congress.[3] The Act’s main goal was clear: to provide a path to citizenship for children and young adults who are currently living in the United States illegally, but are in college or the armed forces and are in “good moral standing.”[4] In essence, it attempts to give those people who were brought to American illegally as young children, but who have lived by the rules and are “succeeding” in our society, an opportunity to gain citizenship.

For as simple or fair as this bill may seem, it was DOA when it hit the Senate in 2010, being filibustered by Senate Republicans. This set off a firestorm of debate in the media, and by extension, our larger community, as to whether the DREAM Act is just.

In determining whether Rawls would consider the DREAM Act just, let us first apply his liberty principle. In doing so, it becomes evident that the DREAM Act would have passed Rawls’ liberty principle test on the basis that it allows the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. No current citizen find his/her liberty offended by others gaining citizenship. The DREAM Act works exactly within said framework.

The question really comes down to whether the DREAM Act would pass Rawls’ difference principle test.  I think that it is pretty obvious that this bill would positively impact certain sub-segments of our society more than others – namely illegal immigrants – yet that is not the core question; rather, the core question is whether the DREAM Act would produce a positive benefit for everyone, even if the level of benefit differed amongst different groups of people. I believe that the answer to this question is undoubtedly a “yes.” To take one particular statistic, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that passing the DREAM Act would reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $1.4 trillion.[5] That’s good for illegal immigrants and citizens of the United States. This is just one example of why everyone would benefit from the passage of the DREAM Act.

At its core, the DREAM Act is about providing a fair way for people who didn’t intend to break any laws, but rather are trying to “succeed” in society, to gain citizenship into the United States. Following Rawls’ theories, I would argue that the DREAM Act is just in this objective.

While this issue took center stage last year, the DREAM Act has been in the making for over 10 years. This was not the first time that Congress considered the DREAM Act. The failed 2010 attempt will almost surely not be the last. So, what are your thoughts? Oh, and considering that we are all college students at a prestigious University, I thought that you might want to read this interesting article about a peer of ours.


[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA), 18.

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA), 18.

[3] “Basic Information About the DREAM Act Legislation,” http://dreamact.info/students, Date Accessed: November 26, 2011

[4] “Basic Information About the DREAM Act Legislation,” http://dreamact.info/students, Date Accessed: November 26, 2011

[5] “Dream Act Would Reduce Deficit Over Next 10 Years,” Date Accessed: November 27, 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/03/dream-act-vote-on-deck-cb_n_791764.html

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2 Comments on “John Rawls and the DREAM Act”

  1. weimarj Says:

    I agree that the Dream Act is a good thing. It would help in more ways then just lowering our national debt. Those illegal immigrants succeeding in our society could actually make more money having a legal identity. They would then pay taxes and probably make more money, to spend more into the economy. From an economic standpoint alone they should be citizens. If these people are succeeding in society are they really worse off than everyone else. To succeed in society they need to be talented, which would make them better off and according to Rawls one does not entitled to the benefits they would gain from their talents.

  2. cobyj17 Says:

    I agree with your analysis that the Dream Act would benefit society as a whole, not just the immigrants. While the economic gains are tangible, the Dream Act would also uphold American values that make our country better on the whole. First, our country is one founded by immigrants, and is better off for welcoming the idea that we are a melting pot. Second, this would help the social mobility off talented children who are illegal immigrants but could become successful in society. Supporting this social mobility bolsters the American dream that anyone who works hard can make it. Additionally, supporting talented immigrants adds to the diversity of society. Adding diverse perspectives can, as Mill argued, help all perspectives of society.

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