Immigrant Advocates Push DREAM Act, But Congress Remains Wary
DREAM Act supporters at a May rally in Michigan (Detroit Free Press/ZUMApress.com)
On Tuesday, about 300 students — many non-citizens who have been living in the U.S. for years — filed into a church near the Capitol for a mock graduation ceremony. Clad in caps and gowns, they came from as far as California to lobby members of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would help students who immigrated to the U.S. as children obtain citizenship. Their goal is to see the bill pass this year, with or without comprehensive immigration reform.
[Immigration1] “We cannot wait one more year,” said Virginia Gonzalez of the Immigrant Youth Justice League. The other students joined her in a chant: “Undocumented and unafraid.”
As comprehensive reform looks increasingly unlikely to pass this year, many immigration activists have shifted their focus to the DREAM Act. But the legislation, introduced in this session by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last March, is caught in a tenuous middle ground. It’s too much for conservatives, who call it a form of amnesty that would encourage others to break immigration laws. Yet it’s too little for Democratic leaders in Congress, who are still holding out hope — at least in public statements — that comprehensive reform is possible, and arguing that the DREAM Act should be incorporated into a larger reform bill rather than pushed on its own.
Immigration activists, such as the ones gathered at the Capitol, see the DREAM Act as a way to move forward as comprehensive immigration reform stalls. “If we have the DREAM Act here and it’s alive and it has support, why not give the youth that opportunity?” said Juan Escalante, communications director for the DREAM Activist mobilization. The activists have chosen to push for smaller reform to cut their losses. It’s not that they don’t want to see comprehensive reform pass, he said — they just don’t want to go down with the ship if it doesn’t.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first proposed in 2001 and fell eight votes short of overcoming a filibuster in 2007. Critics call it amnesty for illegal immigrants, but there are conditions: To be eligible, the immigrant must enter the country before the age of 16, live five consecutive years in the U.S., earn a high school diploma or the equivalent, and demonstrate good “moral character.” (There are no specifics on what that means, but it is generally interpreted as the absence of a criminal record.) Applicants would be limited to those between the ages of 12 and 35.
Once eligible, participants would be required to put in at least two years in college or the military in order to eventually become citizens. Of the 2.1 million unauthorized immigrant youth and young adults who would be eligible to apply for legal status under the DREAM Act, only about 825,000 would eventually gain citizenship, according to estimates released this month from the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.
Critics argue that the DREAM Act would reward illegal behavior. “What you’re doing is creating an incentive for people to come here,” said Ira Mehlman of the pro-enforcement Federation for American Immigration Reform. Instead, he argued, the government should focus on enforcing the laws already in place.
But supporters of immigration reform see the DREAM Act as a good way to help fix a broken system without adding harsh enforcement measures that could be lumped in with a comprehensive reform bill. Ali Noorani, executive director of National Immigration Forum, said the DREAM Act or AgJOBS, a reform bill that focuses on immigrant farm workers, could be a good step toward reforming immigration policy. “Whether it’s the DREAM Act or AgJOBS that passes, we have to make sure that neither passes with enforcement measures,” he said.
The DREAM Act has another advantage over comprehensive reform: It has bipartisan support. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is the bill’s only Republican co-sponsor, following the resignation of fellow co-sponsor Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) last year. Lugar’s stance is arguably closest to the that of DREAM Act supporters when it comes to strategy.
“We’re not going to do comprehensive reform this year,” a spokesman for Lugar told TWI. “It’s not in the cards.” He said the senator supports comprehensive immigration reform, but if it’s not possible this session he’s willing to look at other options, such as the DREAM Act.
Still, Lugar’s support distinguishes him from his Republican colleagues. Most Republicans say that tougher border control is necessary before a path to citizenship is laid out. In March, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) notably called the DREAM Act a “nightmare for the American people,” arguing that it could open citizenship to “millions” if DREAM Act beneficiaries were able to help their families gain citizenship.
Other Republicans’ positions are more difficult to pin down. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), for example, in 2003 referred to the deportation of young people who grew up in the U.S. as a “tremendous loss to our society.” He was an original sponsor of the legislation, and still speaks about the DREAM Act in positive terms during town hall meetings. But he’s not a sure “yea” vote — Antonia Ferrier, Hatch’s spokeswoman, said in an email that Hatch does not support the current version of the DREAM Act and believes the Senate should prioritize border enforcement.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are hesitant to push for the DREAM Act if it means giving up on comprehensive reform this year, even though many of them have said a far-reaching immigration bill is unlikely. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants comprehensive, not “piecemeal,” immigration reform. A spokesman declined to comment on Reid’s plans for the DREAM Act or comprehensive reform, saying he would defer to Durbin, the party’s second-ranking senator, on his plans for the bill.
At Tuesday’s event, Durbin told DREAM Act supporters, “We can pass the DREAM Act this year,” but he added that he hopes to see it included in comprehensive reform. Durbin told The Hill in May that he planned to lay low on the act. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m pushing the DREAM Act at the expense of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said at the time.
Durbin spokesman Max Gleischman told TWI there are no definitive plans to move forward with the DREAM Act instead of comprehensive immigration reform. “We’re certainly open to that option, but right now we’re focused on making sure that’s a part of comprehensive reform conversation,” he said, adding that comprehensive reform is still possible this year. (Durbin told The Associated Press last week that it is “very unlikely” that the DREAM Act would pass before November.)
Another advocate of immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), has acknowledged that comprehensive reform doesn’t have the votes to pass right now. Still, he said in an email that he is in favor of tying the DREAM Act to a comprehensive reform bill as “a critical component of reform that fixes all aspects of our broken immigration system.”
Some immigration activists are hopeful that if comprehensive reform doesn’t happen this year, the DREAM Act will get a shot instead. Escalante of DREAM Activist said passing the bill would only help the odds of comprehensive reform down the line.
“It’s not like we’re going to pass the DREAM Act today and then tomorrow we’re going to go to Disney World and just live the rest of our lives,” he said. “These students will keep fighting for reform.”
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU School of Law, said the DREAM Act is one of the few standalone pieces of immigration legislation that has a chance of moving forward. Will it mean a steeper climb for comprehensive reform in the future? Chishti said he suspects those who oppose the DREAM Act would have opposed comprehensive reform anyway.
“At the end of the day in legislative strategy you have to make choices, and this looks like a reasonable call to make,” he said. “Will it have fallout? Sure. But everything has fallout.”