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High stakes for the DREAM Act in the lame duck

As Congress begins the lame-duck session, both houses are under increasing pressure to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow some undocumented young people to gain legal status by attending college or serving in the military. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is retiring at the end of this session, called today for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to bring the bill up for a vote before the end of the year.

“Allowing undocumented students to attend primary and secondary schools but requiring that they pay out-of-state tuition for college creates an unfair financial burden that many, even very talented, students cannot overcome,” Diaz-Balart said in a press release. “We should stop hampering these deserving students’ educational opportunities due to the decisions of their parents and allow a vote on the American DREAM Act.”

I explain some of the votes up in the air in our preview of the lame-duck session today. Pelosi has said she hopes to call for a vote on the bill, as has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But so far, it’s unclear whether the Democratic leadership has the votes to pass the bill, with some members of the Democratic caucus likely to break with the party to vote against the bill.

For immigrant rights groups, the stakes are high: If the DREAM Act cannot pass with Democrat majorities in both the House and the Senate, it will almost certainly be delayed until at least 2013, when Democrats could again take control of Congress. Immigrant rights groups are stepping up their efforts by staging protests and lobbying politicians to vote for the bill.

One reason supporters want the bill passed this year, beyond the obvious desire to provide more immediate relief to undocumented immigrants, is to prevent further problems with the DREAM Act’s age constraints. The current bill would allow undocumented immigrants who had attended two years of college or served in the military for two years to gain legal status if they had a clean permanent record and were under the age of 35.

For some, that age sounds too high — people who are in their 30s may no longer be students, whom the bill is theoretically meant to help. But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chief sponsor of the bill, said in October he wants to help those the bill was initially aimed at when it first came up in 2001 — some of whom may now be reaching the upper age limits of the bill.

If the bill is delayed, future efforts could raise the upper age cutoff — at the risk of losing some votes — or would no longer benefit those immigrants, some of whom have been advocating for the bill for years.

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