Hope: dreamers can now aspire to something greater than a menial job in the black economy
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A property tycoon has launched an ambitious — audacious, even — bid for the White House, threatening to deport undocumented immigrants from the US if he gets there and betting that calling Mexicans “rapists” might win him the votes to do so.

As a cause, throwing immigrants out of the country is not typical of the billionaire set, but then Donald Trump has always been in a category to himself.

America’s wealthiest citizens are actually much more likely to give money to undocumented immigrants than to give them grief.

One of the most fashionable causes currently is funding university tuition for children who were brought to the US by their parents, but whose illegal status means they are frozen out of the system of federal grants and loans. These are the 2m youngsters collectively known as “Dreamers”.

This cause, whose backers include Don Graham, former owner of the Washington Post, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, is not on its face politically motivated — there are humanitarian and economic reasons for wanting to support the education of migrant children — but it has potentially great political significance. It strengthens the case for immigration reform that has eluded Congress for decades, and when the Trump show finally ends, comprehensive immigration reform will be nearer, not further away, because of this philanthropic movement.

Ah, Dreamers. It might be one of the most consequential pieces of rebranding ever. These are children of illegal immigrants who, because of their undocumented status, could not get a social security number that would allow them to work legally. In many states, they could not even get a driver’s licence.

A few years ago they were being called “illegals”. Then came the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — the Dream Act — which would have put them on a path to citizenship. The Dream Act failed to pass Congress, but the name stuck.

In 2012, President Barack Obama used an executive order to grant Dreamers two-year work permits, giving them, as he put it, a shot at the American dream. In a nation of immigrants, the idea is personal and potent.

Take Bill Ackman. Last year, two hours into a three-hour presentation on why he is betting Herbalife shares will fall to zero, the hedge fund manager began to talk about his family: his great-grandfather, who came to the US from Russia in the 1880s and worked his way up from nothing; and his father, the first Ackman to go to college, who was in the audience.

“I’m a huge beneficiary of this country,” he said, astonishing the audience by choking up and wiping away tears.

President Obama’s action dramatically widened the work opportunities open to Dreamers, who can now aspire to something greater than a menial job in the black economy. The executive order also eliminated administrative hurdles to getting into college. However, Dreamers remain locked out of the federal system of grants and subsidised student loans, which means the playing field is still uneven.

TheDream.US was founded by Graham in 2013, just as he was selling the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and it has won donations from celebrities of philanthropy including Bill and Melinda Gates and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

“We set a target of $25m, and bust straight through that,” says Gaby Pacheco, the organisation’s programme director. “So then we said $50m — and now we are at $91m. Now we are planning to offer 5,000 scholarships, of up to $25,000 each.”

The organisation has quickly become a go-to for wealthy donors. Penny Pritzker, scion of the Hyatt hotel dynasty and secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, is one prominent supporter of the cause who is using her own foundation in Illinois. But others prefer to use the infrastructure already being built at TheDream.US. Zuckerberg, for example, donated $5m to the organisation with the stipulation that it be spent in the San Francisco area.

In some cases, support for Dreamers aligns with the circumstances of donors’ business lives. Ackman has attempted to mobilise the Hispanic community in his campaign against Herbalife, which has recruited heavily from that community to sell its nutrition products and which Ackman contends is a pyramid scheme (something the company denies).

Facebook, meanwhile, is lobbying ferociously for immigration reform, saying the US is not producing enough homegrown software engineers. In a blog post announcing his donation, Zuckerberg wrote: “We ought to welcome smart and hardworking young people from every nation, and to help everyone in our society achieve their full potential.”

As so often, the philanthropic and the political are not so easy to tease apart. Dreamers, even college-educated ones, are not going to get the vote, but by helping them to become bigger contributors to the US economy through more lucrative jobs, sponsorship donors are adding to the arguments for giving them a path to full citizenship. And each scholarship creates a story of an ambitious youngster achieving a college degree and pursuing the American dream, another little counter to the negative stereotypes bandied about by populist pugilists. These factors will help shape the political debate.

Donations to TheDream.US and Trump’s poll numbers have soared in tandem this year, but I know which one will prove the more enduring.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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