Congress eyes DREAM Act: Fair to illegal immigrants or back-door amnesty?

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has said he will take up the DREAM Act next week. The bill would open a path to citizenship for some young illegal immigrants.

By , Staff writer

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    Fresno State student President Pedro Ramirez, who was recently outed as an illegal immigrant, attends a rally in support of the DREAM Act on campus Friday.
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If compelling human stories counted as votes, the DREAM Act would breeze through the lame-duck session of Congress, which resumes on Monday.

Take Pedro Ramirez, the student body president at California State University, Fresno, whose illegal status recently was leaked by an anonymous tipper. In response, hundreds of Fresno State students rallied to support him last week.

“It’s time to pass the DREAM Act,” said university President John Welty, who urged students to call members of Congress.

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The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, first introduced in August 2001, creates a path to citizenship for children under the age of 16 brought to the US illegally and who attend college or have joined the military. It’s a top priority of Senate Democrats in the waning days of the 111th Congress. Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada says he will take the measure to the floor as early as next week.

It’s also a flash point in an ongoing partisan fight over whether and how to reform the nation’s immigration laws. Republicans have pressed for stronger enforcement of existing law – including beefed up border security and more reliable identify documents to help employers screen applicants – as a confidence-building measure.

In anticipation of a floor fight over this bill, Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are circulating a position paper that describes the DREAM Act as a gateway to a broad amnesty for millions of people and their extended families now in the US illegally.

“It is highly likely that the number of illegal aliens receiving amnesty under the DREAM Act will be much higher than the estimated 2.1 million due to fraud and our inherent in ability to accurately estimate the alien population,” concluded a report released by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After criticism that the bill included no age limits – and therefore was a potentially broad amnesty measure – sponsors capped eligibility at Age 35.

The US Department of Education estimates that there are some 55,000 students about to graduate from high school who could qualify for help under the terms of the act.

“Many young people – many were my students when I ran Chicago Public Schools – have done everything right: They’ve gone to school,... gotten good grades, worked hard, they’ve played by all the rules, and then the chance of going to college was denied them,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a Nov. 18 press conference call. “That is absolutely unfair to those children ... and to our country and economy.”

In addition to coping with Republican opposition, Democrats will also need to bring on board lawmakers in their own ranks. At least seven Senate Democrats have expressed doubts about the measure or committed themselves in advance to oppose it. That makes winning the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster well out of reach.

But Democrats still have strong reasons to push the legislation. “It’s a send-a-message vote,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Hispanic votes will be critical if Democrats want to get reelected or take back control of the House.”

Anti-illegal immigration groups caution that a vote for the DREAM Act could also threaten Republican senators who face voters in 2012.

“The pro-DREAM people are trying to gin up this sense of inevitability,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “Even the Republicans who cosponsored it – Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Nevada – they’re up in two years and they are facing [possible] conservative primary challengers,” he adds. “Do they want to open up this huge new target on their backs? I don’t see it.”

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